Between 2008 and 2012, the United States saw a 17 percent increase in the number of medical licenses that were revoked, denied, or suspended. A new University College London study suggests gender may be part of the equation underlying these rising numbers. Compared to a female doctor, the odds of a male doctor having legal action taken against him is nearly 2.5 to one, says the research.

Importantly, because more women have become doctors, it can no longer be argued “that male doctors are more likely to face medico-legal action because there are more male doctors practicing,” the researchers wrote.

Instead, they pose another explanation for these results… but first let's examine the research.

Consistent Over Time And Place

Previous studies have looked at sex differences and legal action in specific countries but none have examined the trend globally. To investigate these differences on an international level, the research team searched medical journals for published studies on this issue. They limited their search to research published in either English or French, a significant limitation, some would say.

As a result of the search, they identified 32 studies, which included a total of 40,246 cases of legal action against a medical professional. Next, the researchers divided the actions into categories:

  • action taken against a doctor by a medical regulatory board
  • malpractice claims/cases
  • complaints received by non-regulatory bodies that investigate complaints
  • criminal cases
  • and medico-legal matters with a medical defense organization (this category groups several medico-legal action types together)

Their analysis revealed that, among doctors, men were more likely to be sued compared to women, with nearly two and half times the odds. Unusually, this effect appeared consistent across a number of years as well as across the countries included in the investigation.

What would explain this imbalance?

“The causes are likely to be complex and multi-factorial,” wrote the authors in their conclusion. While in the past experts argued that more men practiced medicine so naturally they would receive complaints, any differences between the sexes would have been gradually reduced over time, the researchers claim, as more women began to enter the field of medicine. Since their analysis shows the basic male/female balance in complaints has remained consistent for the last 15 years, this rationalization doesn’t quite fit the data.

There's an entirely different possibility, the researchers say, though they warn more study is needed to substantiate it.

Evidence indicates "female doctors work less hours than male doctors, and see less patients than their male colleagues," the researchers wrote, and in three of the studies they analyzed, "the number of hours worked has been shown to be associated with increased likelihood of medico-legal action." The likely reason, then, that men get sued more than women comes down to simple arithmetic.

Source: Unwin E, Woolf K, Wadlow C, Potts HWW, Dacre J. Sex differences in medico-legal action against doctors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Medicine. 2015.