Several members of the new Congress have vowed to make medical malpractice reform a priority in the coming months, claiming that the system is threatened with collapse because of frivolous lawsuits, frightened doctors, and run-away juries who lavish millions of dollars in damages on litigious patients who sue over trivial issues.
But none of these things were ever really true, and a separate concern—that doctors were paying ever-increasing insurance premiums that might eventually drive them out of medicine—is at least ten years out of date (and wasn’t accurate even then).
Numerous experts have pointed out that the story being told by these legislators is well behind the times. The American medical malpractice system might have faced some trouble a decade ago, but a lot has changed in ten years. According to reliable data, insurance premiums are down, claims have shrunk by half, and in most states,the total dollar amount of settlements is less than it was just a few years ago.
Keep in mind why medical malpractice laws exist. They’re not there to enrich people with fraudulent or frivolous claims. They’re there to compensate those who have been harmed by the negligence of healthcare professionals.
Professionals in every line of work make mistakes, but when medical workers make them there can be immediate and serious consequences. Even so, when a mistake is truly an unforeseeable accident or when a physician does everything possible but a patient still can’t be helped, this is not always a case of malpractice. That’s part of why these cases go to trial: so that the facts can be revealed and negligence, if it exists, can be determined.
Many medical errors, however, are predictable and preventable, and medical professionals need to take this into account. This is no trivial concern. A study last year showed that preventable medical errors likely add up to rank as the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Most doctors and other healthcare professionals do excellent work and have nothing to fear from a healthy medical malpractice system. They should, in fact, strongly support such a system because it can protect them and their field’s reputation.
Almost all doctors will have a medical malpractice claim at least once during their careers, and the majority of them will pay at least one settlement. However, a small number of doctors are involved in a disproportionate amount of claims and settlements.
According to that study, a mere one percent of doctors are the defendants in 32 percent of malpractice cases. Doctors who are not at fault and who face few claims should be happy to see the system do its part to remove these more dangerous physicians from practice, not only because it will lower their insurance premiums, but also because it will improve the quality of care for everyone.
Simple steps can make the system better. Hospitals that strictly follow checklists during surgical procedures reduce the number of errors dramatically, for example. Owning up to mistakes can also have a major effect: When a physician or hospital takes responsibility for a medical error and apologizes, not only are malpractice cases resolved faster, but they also result in smaller settlement amounts. Saying you’re sorry doesn’t cost anyone anything; in fact, it appears to reduce costs.
In their zeal to change parts of the healthcare system that they dislike, our legislators should be careful to base their decisions and their proposals on accurate information and to be aware of what works outside of political concerns.
At Craig Swapp & Associates, we have years of experience dealing with medical malpractice law. Whether your case involves a surgical error, a misdiagnosis, a birth injury, a medication error, or any other medical malpractice situation, we can help.
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