Medical Malpractice Myths

Now that the Obama administration is proposing health care reform, big insurance companies and some doctors associations are attempting to graft so called “tort reform” into the legislation. Georgia residents are already faced with a very restrictive system which affords doctors, hospitals, and other health care professionals with extraordinary protections against lawsuits. Even in the worst cases of malpractice victims are restircted to a recovery for non economic damages of no more than $350,000.00.
The New York Times today ran an excellent guest editorial regarding medical malpractice reform by Tom Baker, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. It is posted below:
OUR medical liability system needs reform. But anyone who thinks that limiting liability would reduce health care costs is fooling himself. Preventable medical injuries, not patient compensation, are what ring up extra costs for additional treatment. This means taxpayers, employers and everyone else who buys health insurance — all of us — have a big stake in patient safety.
Eighty percent of malpractice claims involve significant disability or death, a 2006 analysis of medical malpractice claims conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health shows, and the amount of compensation patients receive strongly depends on the merits of their claims. Most people injured by medical malpractice do not bring legal claims, earlier studies by the same researchers have found.
On the other hand, medical liability has improved patient safety — by leading hospitals to hire risk managers, for example, and spurring anesthesiologists to improve their safety standards and practices. Even medical societies’ efforts to attack the liability system have helped, by inspiring the research that has documented the surprising extent of preventable injuries in hospitals. That research helped start the patient safety movement.
When it comes to rising medical costs, liability is a symptom, not the disease. Getting rid of liability might save money for hospitals and some high-risk specialists, but it would cost society more by taking away one of the few hard-wired patient safety incentives.
Besides, there’s a better answer for doctors worried about high malpractice insurance premiums.
Critics point to defensive medicine as the hidden burden that liability imposes on health care. Yet research shows that while the fear of liability changes doctors’ behavior, that isn’t necessarily a burden. Some defensive medicine is, like defensive driving, good practice. Too often, we can’t distinguish between treatments that are necessary and those that are wasteful. Better research on what works and what doesn’t — evidence-based medicine — will help. And it will address the more general challenge of avoiding costly but unnecessary care.
Just as we need evidence-based medicine, we also need evidence-based medical liability reform. The research shows, overwhelmingly, that the real problem is too much malpractice, not too many malpractice lawsuits. So medical providers should be required to disclose injuries, provide quicker compensation to deserving patients and — here’s the answer for doctors worried about their premiums — shift the responsibility for buying malpractice insurance to hospitals and other large medical institutions. Evidence-based liability reform would give these institutions the incentive they need to cut back on the most wasteful aspect of American health care: preventable medical injuries.

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