Congressional Republicans have recently revived discussions on Medical Malpractice – capping damages at $250,000 for certain kinds of injuries. A perennial argument of supporters of such measures is that many claims are frivolous, clogging the court system and driving up health care costs for everyone. But the evidence doesn’t necessarily support this.
The New York Times recently published an article about Medical Malpractice – the popular talking points, arguments, and fallacies. The article explains that there are substantial costs to defending malpractice cases: “Other research shows that providers and hospitals spent $81,000 to $107,000 (in 2008 dollars) to defend cases that went to verdict, on average. Even defending claims that were dropped, withdrawn or dismissed cost $15,000 per claim.” While there is much to be said about frivolous medical malpractice actions, the fact remains that “the same 2006 [New England Journal of Medicine] study also found that, in many ways, the malpractice system works reasonably well. Most claims without errors or injuries didn’t result in payments, and most claims with errors did.” So if the legal system is largely working, what is a better solution to curb the issues surrounding medical malpractice?
“A study published last month in the American Journal of Health Economics explored the link between malpractice suits and metrics known as Patient Safety Indicators (P.S.I.). These indicators, developed and released by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in 2003, are intended to quantify harmful events in the health care system. These events are thought to be preventable by changes at the level of the physician, the hospital or the system itself.”
The researchers combined data from Florida and Texas to determine the effect of 17 Patient Safety Indicators on medical malpractice actions. The results were fairly stark: the safer the hospital, the fewer incidence of malpractice. Put another way, an increase in patient safety leads to a decrease in malpractice actions.
“Bernard Black, one of the authors of the study and a professor at Northwestern’s school of law, said that even small changes in patient safety helped a lot: ‘Moving a hospital from roughly the 33rd percentile (worse than two-thirds of other hospitals) to the 67th percentile (better than two-thirds of other hospitals) reduces the rate of lawsuits by 16 percent. This level of improvement should be achievable.'”
While the study is far from the final word on malpractice actions, its conclusions are undeniable. An increase in patient safety not only decreases the frequency of malpractice lawsuits, but improves patient outcomes – a good in itself. The article’s author states his conclusion well: “Too often, efforts to fight undeniable problems in the malpractice system start from the assumption that there are too many cases, that they’re not “real,” and that we need to come up with solutions to limit them. But what the data suggest is that improving medical practices may be a more effective approach than passing new laws.”