Yes. Medical residents can be held accountable for making errors that harm their patients even though they are “technically” not doctors until completing their residency.
But statistics show that lawsuits against residents are unusual. One study, published in the journal Academic Medicine, found of nearly 3,200 medical malpractice lawsuits examined between 2012 and 2016, less than 15% targeted doctors-in-training.
Where does the greatest risk lie for patients?
The most logical explanation that lawsuits involve inexperienced residents less frequently is because they are supposed to be under the strict supervision of teaching physicians, and lawsuits typically target veteran doctors. The American Medical Association (AMA) reports that the top three factors for medical malpractice claims involving residents are:
- Inadequate supervision – 24%
- Technical performance leading to complications – 24%
- Failure to recognize symptoms or signs and order appropriate tests – 15%
Most claims against training physicians involve resident surgeons for punctures or lacerations during operations, infections and nervous symptom complications.
Debate exists over the “July Effect”
July is considered medical malpractice season at teaching hospitals by some patient safety groups. That’s typically the month with the largest influx of the newest and least experienced residents.
Some studies argue that more medical mistakes happen during this month, known as the “July Effect.” However, the study published in Academic Medicine says no hard data backs up that claim.
Residents’ long work hours scrutinized
Over two decades ago, medical residents routinely worked 90 to 100 hours per week, sometimes up to 36 hours straight without rest during their entire residencies. The medical establishment paid little attention to how fatigue affected residents until 1984, when an 18-year-old New York patient died from a prescribing error while under the care of a resident physician working a 36-hour shift.
However, it took until 2003 for the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education to implement rules limiting hours for residents. The guidelines were strengthened in 2011, capping residents’ hours at 80 per week and 24 consecutive hours. But again, dueling studies contradict each other over whether these restrictions have impacted medical errors.