The tables also display the results for our analysis on the AMA risk categories. Once again, there is no statistically significant difference in the supply of practicing ob-gyns between the “Crisis” states and the Remaining states. The percentage changes in births per Fellow and births per Junior Fellow for AMA “Crisis” and Remaining states were similar. These results suggest that, like ACOG designation, the AMA designation of “Crisis” states, compared with the Remaining states, does not predict ob-gyn practice location.
Likewise, our analysis for premium-based medical liability risk categories shows that the percentage changes in births per Fellow were comparable between the 10 High-Premium states and the 10 Low-Premium states. There was no significant difference in their average percentage changes (–15.1% versus –16.4%, P = .67). However, we did observe a significant difference in the percentage changes of births per Junior Fellow between the High- and Low-Premium states. The median percentage increase in the High-Premium states was more than 5 times larger than the change in Low-Premium states (28.5% versus 5.0%, P = .03).
Our results from the county-level analysis also show a trend in the supply of ob-gyns (results not shown in the table). In general, most counties in the United States experienced decreases in the number of births per ob-gyn, indicating an improvement in the supply of obstetric care. However, on average, the 6 highest-premium counties had a lower rate of decrease than other counties in the nation (–3.4% versus –5.6%, P = .92). Even though the result lacked statistical significance, this may hint at a worse supply situation in meeting the population need for obstetric services in these high-premium counties relative to other areas of the country.
Finally, we examined the malpractice premium levels in ACOG “Red Alert” states and Safe states, as well as AMA “Crisis” states and Remaining states. On average, from 1995 to 2002, the premiums in ACOG “Red Alert” states increased by 32.9%, while the premiums in the Safe states increased by 30.9% (P = .19). Similarly, there is no significant difference in the change of premiums between AMA “Crisis” states and Remaining states (36.4% versus 28.8%, P = .17) over the same period of time.
In the United States, obstetric service providers have been struggling with climbing medical malpractice insurance premiums for many years and lack of affordable malpractice insurance coverage has affected access to care in some areas.11 Our analysis shows that, from 1995 to 2003, while the number of births per Fellow decreased in 48 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the number of births per Junior Fellow increased in 36 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In particular, we found that the increase in births per Junior Fellow was significantly greater for the 10 highest-premium states than the 10 lowest-premium states. Further, our data suggests that, on average, birth rates actually increased in the Low-Premium states while they decreased in the High-Premium states during the study period. Taken together, this supports our hypothesis that high malpractice premiums may have had an influence on the decision of Junior Fellows to practice in these states. This finding is consistent with our expectation that this group of ob-gyns is more sensitive to the impact of liability risk. Analysis of the top 6 high-premium counties also shows a tendency of negative impact of high malpractice premiums on ob-gyn supply. Level of malpractice premiums appears to be an importance factor influencing the supply of ob-gyns, especially for Junior Fellows.
Both ACOG and AMA designations of high-risk and low-risk states were based on a number of factors. The College designated its “Red Alert” states according to the availability of professional liability coverage (as measured by the number of insurance carriers issuing policies or abandoning the medical liability market, and the absolute cost and rate of increase in insurance premiums), a combination of geographic, economic, and other conditions that affect ob-gyn supply, such as the history of state tort reform (James Lumalcuri, ACOG Department of Professional Liability/Risk Management, July 2004, personal communication). The AMA's criteria included surveys and polls of medical students and residents’ and physicians’ perceptions of medical legal risk, as well as their concerns about medical liability coverage costs and access.12
As shown in our statistical analysis, there was no significant difference in the premium levels between ACOG “Red Alert” states and the Safe states, and between AMA “Crisis” states and the Remaining states. Both designations lacked a statistically significant relationship to malpractice premiums for ob-gyns. Indeed the ACOG “Red Alert” category includes several Low-Premium states such as Virginia (average premium $36,282), Georgia (average premium $37,616), Alabama (average premium $37,690), and Washington (average premium $38,597). Massachusetts (average premium $84,566) and Michigan (average premium $88,945), where average liability premiums are high, are not listed among the “Red Alert” states. Similarly, the AMA “Crisis” category includes several states where the medical liability premiums are low, eg, Arkansas (average premium $28,484), or modest, eg, Georgia (average premium $37,616), Washington (average premium $38,597), and Oregon (average premium $40,160). The few states that are declared as safe from liability crisis do not necessarily coincide with the states with low premiums either.
This deviation from the premium costs concerning ob-gyns might be an important reason for our failure to detect any significant difference in the supply of ob-gyns when using the ACOG and AMA designations. Our significant findings on the impact of medical liability premiums on the supply of Junior Fellows warrants more attention from both organizations toward premium management in their future role of guiding obstetrical care.
The sharp increase in the number of births per Junior Fellow in the High-Premium states suggests that the supply of new ob-gyns is not keeping pace with the population need for obstetric services in states where the medical malpractice insurance premiums are the highest. This raises concern about women's future access to obstetric care. Recent data show that medical students’ interest in the obstetrics-gynecology specialty has also declined.13–15 The number of U.S. medical doctors electing an ob-gyn residency training program has significantly declined. In 2004, the percentage of graduating U.S. senior medical students filling the Postgraduate Year One positions in obstetrics-gynecology decreased to 65%,16 compared with 86% approximately 10 years ago.17 When choosing a residency, the medical liability issue influenced the choice of state for 39% of medical students, and it affected the choice of specialty for 50% of them.18
It is likely that rising premiums are causing the pipeline for new ob-gyns to dry up. This may reduce patient access to and use of prenatal care in the future. A widely held belief is that higher medical liability risk may affect health care use through positive defensive medicine and overuse. Our results here suggest that increased malpractice premiums can influence obstetrical care in another way, ie, by reducing the entry of new ob-gyns to this specialty. Unless effective actions are taken, we may expect a shortage of ob-gyns in the coming years. This may greatly limit the capacity of our health care system to care for high-risk babies and deliver obstetric services in a timely manner. It can also restrict the ability of providers to spend quality time with obstetric patients. In the long run, high medical liability premiums may come at a cost of reduced patient access to high-quality obstetrical care.
Several factors limit the accuracy and depth of this study. First, the average liability costs data were derived from the Medical Liability Monitor survey of medical malpractice premiums. The number of participating insurance firms and their service areas were not consistent for each state across study years. Our estimate of state average premiums might be biased by the survey participants. Moreover, because the survey data did not have detailed information on the market share of each insurance firm in the state, we were not able to derive a weighted average premium, which should be a more appropriate measure of state malpractice liability risk.
Second, our study used the number of ob-gyns in practice who performed at least some obstetric services, but we did not account for the fact that these physicians might alter their practices to reduce high-risk and other obstetric services. The new Medical Liability Survey of ACOG members reveals that 9.2% of the members who were surveyed stopped practicing obstetrics because of liability insurance costs and availability, and 12.2% decreased the number of deliveries.19 Therefore, our results likely underestimated the real impact of medical liability risk.
Third, the present study focused on state-level effects. Nevertheless, the market for malpractice insurance varies within each state. Different areas of the states may have different insurance firms, and the premiums written may vary as well. Data used for this study restricted our ability to assess the influence of malpractice liability risk at a more detailed geographic level.
Finally, our analysis attempted to capture the association between high malpractice premiums and changes in the number of physicians in practice but was limited in its ability to account for other potential attributors for physician supply due to data availability. For example, we lacked information on physician reimbursement rates. High malpractice premiums can be offset in areas where physician reimbursement is high. That might contribute to a more stable supply in some states; yet our analysis did not account for local variations in obstetrician supply that may be influenced by reimbursement. Wealthy suburbs may be more likely to have an adequate supply of obstetricians, whereas a nearby poor urban population with poor insurance coverage is likely to have problems retaining obstetric providers. Further research should be completed to better understand these local economic influences on physician supply.
Clearly, we need more research on the interaction of malpractice premiums and obstetrician–gynecologist supply. As a useful first step, our study provided evidence of declining supply in new practitioners because of increasing medical legal premiums. There is legitimate reason for us to be concerned about patients’ future access to obstetric care and critical prenatal care. Both AMA and ACOG will be at the forefront of the liability reform movement to reverse the declining trend of new entries into obstetrics-gynecology. Research findings in this field will assist their decision making regarding malpractice premium management and will provide empirical evidence to inform policy changes and tort reform that could alleviate this situation.
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© 2005 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
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