Medical malpractice attorneys at Pintas & Mullins point to a recent article published by the New York Times detailing the importance of malpractice litigation in gaining a more transparent healthcare system. Lawsuits often reveal diagnostic and treatment errors that would not have been caught otherwise, helping hospitals better to identify and address medical errors.
The article details a study the author conducted to determine the various effects modern malpractice litigation is having on our nation's hospitals. The author, Joanna Schwartz, surveyed more than 400 risk management, claims management, and quality improvement specialists from health care centers throughout the country.
She notes that, with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, many legislators, advocate groups, and medical officials have focused the discussion around whether or not it will actually bring down our excessive health care costs. Because of the disproportionate costs, many have ignored other important aspects of our system: transparency of and improving on patient safety.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of American patients are seriously injured by preventable medical errors, and tens of thousands more die, making it the sixth leading cause of death in the country. Experts assert that the best, most efficient way to reduce these medical errors is by collecting and analyzing the data surrounding previous errors with the intention of improving future care. This can only be successful, however, if these efforts are made public and available for third-party review.
For many years, hospitals took a mostly secretive approach to medical errors and lawsuits, although this practice started changing in the information age. Now, about 80% of the hospitals Schwartz surveyed have a policy of apologizing to patients when mistakes occur, and are willing to discuss and learn from these mistakes with the staff. Unsurprisingly, hospitals found that disclosing and admitting to errors and offering early settlements reduce the costs and frequency of lawsuits.
Additionally, more than 95% of the hospitals surveyed integrate their information from malpractice lawsuits into improving patient safety efforts. For example, lawsuits often reveal errors that would have otherwise not been reported or collected (medical providers are notorious for underreporting). Moreover, analysis of case trends can reveal systemic problems within specific procedures and departments, making closed litigation files useful for teaching.
Some argue, and have been arguing for years, that the most significant barrier to achieving this is the medical malpractice court system. Dozens of recent articles and studies, like the one published recently by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, are proving just the opposite: that large medical payouts by doctors account for less than one percent of healthcare expenditures.
Their study used the government-run National Practitioner Data Bank, which lists all paid medical malpractice claims. Researchers looked at all "large" awards (over $1 million) between 2004 and 2010 and found that they added up to about $1.4 billion per year. This amount represents about .05% of American healthcare expense costs.
They noted that the real problems are the superfluous and unnecessary tests doctors order in the name of "defense medicine," which cost us about $60 billion a year. Physicians order these tests and procedures in fear that, if they do not, they could be sued for not practicing the "standard level of care," that medical malpractice lawsuits use to measure cases against.