A new study investigating sex differences in medico-legal action against doctors has found that male doctors are almost two and a half times more likely to face legal action than female doctors.

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The odds of facing medico-legal action are almost two and a half times higher among male doctors than female doctors, according to the new study.

The findings, published in BMC Medicine, came after researchers identified and reviewed results from 32 studies concerning medico-legal action.

"More research is needed to understand the reasons for why male doctors are more likely to experience a medico-legal action," says lead researcher Emily Unwin, of University College London (UCL) in the UK. "The causes are likely to be complex and multi-factorial."

The study comes after a rise in recent years in the number of legal cases being brought against doctors. Unwin and her colleagues state that in the US, the number of state board disciplinary actions rose between 2008 and 2012, with a 17% increase in the number of revoked, denied or suspended medical licenses.

Likewise, in the UK, there was a 64% increase in the number of complaints made to the UK medical regulator, the General Medical Council, about the fitness of doctors to practice medicine, alongside a 42% increase in the number of doctors struck off or suspended from the UK medical register.

It is important that factors that may predict disciplinary action are identified, the researchers suggest, as the discovery of any potential underlying factors can support doctors in reaching the standards of care that are expected of them.

Although some studies have previously been conducted investigating sex differences in medico-legal action against doctors, none have examined the matter on a global scale. As a result, researchers from UCL analyzed the results of 32 studies, involving a total of 40,246 cases of medico-legal action that represented a global population of 4,054,551 people.

Sex difference consistent for past 15 years

Not only was the likelihood of medico-legal action being taken against male doctors two and a half times greater than it was for female doctors, but this difference between the sexes was found to have remained consistent over the past 15 years, as well as across different countries.

This particular finding suggests the idea male doctors are more likely than female doctors to experience medico-legal action as there are more practicing male doctors is inaccurate. If this had been the case, the difference between male and female doctors would have reduced over time as the number of female doctors increased.

As their review demonstrates a consistent difference between the sexes, the researchers write that there is likely to be a fundamental reason to explain this disparity.

Potential explanations offered by other studies include the fact that male doctors may work more hours than female doctors and that male doctors have more interactions with patients.

Dr. Unwin states that investigating complaints about doctors' fitness to practice can place a large amount of stress on doctors, regulators and patients alike, and that addressing sex differences in medico-legal action will require a joint effort:

"The medical profession, along with medical regulators, and medical educationalists, now need to work together to identify and understand the underlying causal factors resulting in a sex difference in the experience of medico-legal action, with the aim of better supporting doctors in achieving the standards expected of them, and improving patient care."

While there is likely to be several complex causes behind this difference, the researchers conclude, the first step that their study has achieved is to recognize that there is a difference.

According a study published earlier in the year, neurosurgeons operating in the US conduct additional procedures and tests on patients more out of fear of malpractice lawsuits than for the benefit of the patient.