Medico-legal risk: What otolaryngologists need to know

Know your risk – data by clinical specialty

A physician examining a patient’s throat.

4 minutes

Published: July 2023

At the end of 2021, 735 CMPA members were otolaryngologists (Type of Work 77). In the recent 5 years (2017 – 2021)1, 23.4% of otolaryngologists were named in one new medico-legal case (legal action or complaint), and another 14.2% were named in two or more new cases.

Annually, 10.5% of otolaryngologists were named in one new medico-legal case, and an additional 1.6% were named in two or more new cases on average across this five-year period.1

What are the relative risks of a medico-legal case for otolaryngologists?

  •   ENT Surgeons, College(n=546)
  •   ENT Surgeons, Legal(n=281)
  •    All surgical specialties, College(n=6,955)
  •   All surgical specialties, Legal(n=4,439)

Between 2012 and 2021, the rate of College matters2 for otolaryngologists showed more fluctuations compared to the group of all surgical specialties. Overall, there was no significant difference between the two groups during this period.

Compared to all surgical specialties, otolaryngologists had consistently lower rates of civil legal actions.

The following sections describe the findings based on the 242 civil legal cases, College, and hospital matters involving otolaryngologists with peer expert criticism that were closed by the CMPA between 2011 and 2021.

What are the most common patient complaints and peer expert criticism? (n=242)3

Issue %, Patient allegation %, Peer expert criticism
Deficient assessment 33 11
Inadequate consent process 23 12
Diagnostic error 23 17
Injury associated with healthcare delivery 21 15
Communication breakdown with patient 19 12
Unprofessional manner 18 4
Inadequate monitoring or follow-up 16 9
Failure to perform test or intervention 12 7
Insufficient knowledge or skill 10 11
Inadequate office procedure 9 7

Complaints are a reflection of the patient’s perception that a problem occurred during care. These complaints are not always supported by peer expert opinion. Peer experts may not be critical of the care provided, or may have criticisms that are not part of the patient allegation. These complaints might not result in a negative finding by a College or court.

What are the most frequent interventions with peer expert criticism? (n=242)

Nasal repair surgery (e.g. nasoplasty, rhinoplasty, septoplasty) (23%), Excision of the tonsils and adenoids (e.g. Tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy) (17%), Excision of sinuses (e.g. Sinusectomy, polypectomy) (16%), Fxiation of the skin of the face, forehead and neck (e.g. Facelift, brow/neck lift) (10%), Drainage of the sinuses (e.g. sphenoidotomy, antrostomy, pansinusectomy for drainage) (8%)

  •   Nasal repair surgery (e.g. nasoplasty, rhinoplasty, septoplasty) (23%)
  •   Excision of the tonsils and adenoids (e.g. Tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy) (17%)
  •   Excision of the sinuses (e.g. Sinusectomy, polypectomy) (16%)
  •   Fxiation of the skin of the face, forehead and neck (e.g. Facelift, brow/neck lift) (10%)
  •   Drainage of the sinuses (e.g. sphenoidotomy, antrostomy, pansinusectomy for drainage) (8%)

The most common peer expert criticisms on these interventions include:

  • Inadequate documentation
  • Insufficient knowledge/skill
  • Deficient assessment
  • Inadequate consent process
  • Poor decision-making regarding management

Intervention frequencies among medico-legal cases are likely representative of otolaryngologists’ practice patterns and do not necessarily reflect high risk interventions.

In the 242 cases, 36 patients suffered injuries during a procedure. For example,

  • punctured dura causing CSF leak during endoscopic sinus surgery
  • orbital lamina puncture during ethmoid sinus endoscopic polypectomy
  • facial nerve injury during tympanoplasty
  • severed facial artery during tonsillectomy

In addition, patients received the wrong surgery, e.g. surgery performed on the wrong ear.

What are the top factors associated with severe patient harm4 in medico-legal cases?

Factors associated with severe patient harm.

Patient factors5

  • Cancer or progression of cancer
  • Cerebrovascular disease
  • Cardiac arrest

Provider factors6

  • Deficient patient assessment
  • Failure to attend to the patient
  • Failure to refer the patient
  • Inadequate monitoring or follow-up
  • Poor clinical decision-making (e.g. whether to proceed with surgery or not)
  • Deviation from a clinical procedure or protocol

System factors6

  • Inadequate office or hospital protocol led to mishandled test results
  • Inadequate protocol led to the patient being overdosed

Team factors6

  • Communication breakdown with nurses

Risk reduction reminders

The following risk management considerations have been identified for otolaryngologists.


  • Ensure all diagnostic indices have been considered including an appropriate differential diagnosis. Consider risk factors from the patient’s medical history, co-morbid conditions, and current medications and their impact on the patient’s treatment.
  • Ensure the consent discussion includes clear and accurate explanations of the material risks and benefits of the proposed procedure or therapy, post-operative expectations, and alternative options. Check for understanding from the patient or family/substitute decision-maker (where appropriate), and answer questions. Document the discussion details in the medical record.
  • Have a reliable system in place to facilitate the timely receipt, effective review, and appropriate management and follow-up of diagnostic tests.


Generally, a surgical safety checklist should be completed and should include:

  • A review of the patient’s medical record for relevant risk factors or considerations
  • Confirmation of having obtained and documented the patient’s informed consent
  • Verification of the patient’s identity, the planned procedure, and the operative site
  • Confirmation that the correct operative site and side have been defined and clearly marked, e.g. use an “operate through your initial” approach if applicable, wherein the operative site is initialed externally with a marker; by cutting through your initials, you know that you are operating on the correct site and side
  • Confirmation that pre-operative antibiotics were administered and venous thromboembolism prophylaxis was instituted, as appropriate


  • Ensure appropriate post-operative patient monitoring has been ordered. Ask team members (e.g. nurses, residents) to alert you of unexpected signs and symptoms.
  • Carefully document patient conditions, discharge instructions, and follow-up plan, and clearly communicate the need for ongoing monitoring to the patient or family/substitute decision-maker (where appropriate) and to the healthcare provider responsible for the follow-up.
  • While many suboptimal outcomes reflect the inherent risks of a procedure, others can generally be avoided with appropriate planning and safety protocols. In many cases, diligent follow-up, disclosure, and documentation of actual or possible complications improves outcomes and communication with the patient or family/substitute decision-maker where appropriate. Principles of vigilance and clear communication can extend to all aspects of otolaryngology practice to improve care and reduce the risk of medico-legal difficulties.


The numbers provided in this report are based on CMPA medico-legal data. CMPA medico-legal cases represent a small portion of patient safety incidents. Many factors influence a person’s decision to pursue a case or file a complaint, and these factors vary greatly by context. Thus, while medico-legal cases can be a rich source for important themes, they cannot be considered representative of patient safety incidents overall.

Now that you know your risk…

Mitigate your medico-legal risk with CMPA Learning resources.


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  1. It takes an average of 2-3 years for a patient safety incident to progress into a medico-legal case. As a result, newly opened cases may reflect incidents that occurred in previous years.
  2. Physicians voluntarily report College matters to the CMPA. Therefore, these cases do not represent a complete picture of all such cases in Canada.
  3. Peer experts refer to physicians who interpret and provide their opinion on clinical, scientific, or technical issues surrounding the care provided. They are typically of similar training and experience as the physicians whose care they are reviewing.
  4. Severe patient harm includes death, catastrophic injuries, and major disabilities. Healthcare-related harm could arise from risk associated with an investigation, medication, or treatment. It could also result from failure in the process of patient care.
  5. Patient factors include any characteristics or medical conditions that apply to the patient at the time of the medical encounter, or any events that occur during the medical encounter.
  6. Based on peer expert opinions.