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Do Residents-In-Training Become Liable In Claims Of Medical Malpractice?

Donna Miller was shocked to learn that physicians who were in-training, known as residents, were actively involved in a surgical procedure that led to significant problems. Some hospital leaders defend the practice by explaining that residents operate only after years of training and in an environment with support that does not jeopardize patient safety. 

Miller had a surgical procedure at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center (UCMC) where she felt that she was not properly informed regarding resident involvement. Prior to her gallbladder operation, she consulted with her surgeon who confirmed he would be performing the operation. After the procedure, it was determined that her operation took over five hours because a liver expert was needed to repair an accidental cut in her bile duct caused by a resident. A hospital spokesman explained that the resident was merely assisting a veteran surgeon at the time.

Teaching hospitals such as UCMC have many residents working as part of their lengthy training process, who are supervised by surgeons and researchers who instruct these future doctors. The Ohio Medical Board says residents must have proper training certification prior to working within a hospital. Data has  not shown any variance in outcomes when residents are involved in gallbladder procedures and hysterectomies. The Ohio Medical Board stated that last year 14 residents were disciplined across the state, yet none were based on malpractice. Some current general malpractice data revealed that:

  • 75% of physicians practicing in low-risk specialties are sued before age 65
  • 99% of physicians practicing in higher-risk specialties are sued before age 65
  • Over 7% of physicians are sued annually
  • Under 10% of suits proceed to a trial
  • In suits that go to trial, the plaintiffs prevail in only 27% of cases

Medical Liability of Physicians in Training Report

A study posted on NCBI focused on resident medical malpractice liability. Recent case law suggests that no formal precedent is established for the level or standard of care expected of residents. The goal within the resident-in-training community is to operate at a level that is safe for patients and allows society to thoroughly train future physicians. When courts have decided on their liability, it is done with consideration for physician representation, circumstances and type of conduct, and the level of supervision that existed.

The study explained that the long-term reality is that safe and quality healthcare is dependent on resident trainee development. Periods of residency are a vital “hands on” component of the overall education and preparation for these individuals to ultimately practice independently, particularly within the sub-specialty areas of medicine. 

Liability must exist as a deterrent to actions of substandard care, while financial compensation must be available to compensate victims. In the vast majority of cases involving resident malpractice, the focus of liability has rested with the supervising (attending) physician and the hospital facility. Holding supervising physicians liable in these cases is essentially a form of vicarious liability that is a job function for senior doctors at hospitals.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 


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