A succinct op-ed in The New York Times earlier this week by UPenn Law School professor Tom Baker made some terrific points about medical malpractice, and the expensive malpractice insurance that everyone is always blaming for the skyrocketing costs of health care.
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.
In other words, patient claims, and accordingly, the malpractice insurance to cover them, are not that large unless patients can prove significant injury or death due to medical negligence. This means that claims are not draining our pocketbooks; medical negligence is.
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.
Disturbingly, findings have shown that hospitals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and in fact all over the country are still vastly underreporting preventable errors, even serious ones, that occur on their watch, despite state laws requiring them to do so. On the consumer level, patients have no way of knowing how well local hospitals are performing. State agencies do not release reports from individual hospitals regarding their rate of medical errors. Oftentimes, it is not until the health department cites a hospital for breaking state laws that the public even hears of the hospital’s failing.
Take away medical liability and you take away the only meaningful check and balance a patient has on the impossible monstrosity of a system that American health care has become.
As Baker notes, “there’s a better answer for doctors worried about high malpractice insurance premiums.” And this answer is:
…[m]edical 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.
It’s so crazy it just might work.