When a doctor makes a poor decision or a hospital makes a mistake, many people in our litigious society have an immediate instinct to sue. While many Plaintiffs are looking for compensation or have legitimate expenses that need to be covered, the reality is that lawsuits can be about more than money. If a patient is injured or dies at the hands of poor medical care, often times a lawsuit is the only way to effectuate change and prevent the mistakes from happening again.
One alternative to a lawsuit is a formal complaint with the Joint Commission on Accreditation, the national organization that monitors and promotes hospital quality and safety. Unfortunately, a formal complaint rarely has a significant impact. The medical community’s resistance to reform is notoriously passionate. The Joint Commission’s 2013 Annual Report points out that only 33% of the 3,300 Joint Commission-accredited hospitals have achieved the organization’s “top performer” rating. (Moreover, there are another 2,400 hospitals in the U.S. that are not even accredited by the Joint Commission.) Only 182 hospitals have managed to make the list for three years in a row.
The lack of safety in many hospitals has been well reported, but professional medical organizations can also be quite resistant to change. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) has refused to formally adopt a series of 21 changes tested and implemented by New York Presbyterian Hospital (NYPH) between 2002 and 2009. The NYPH changes reduced the incident of sentinel events — unanticipated events that result in death or serious injury to patients – from 1.04 per 1000 deliveries in 2000 to zero in 2008 and 2009. To put that into perspective, in 2003 the hospital and its doctors paid victims of sentinel events more than $50 million in compensation. In 2009, they paid $250,000 — a remnant of a malpractice case that predated the reforms. Yet ACOG refuses to recommend these reforms on the grounds that they may infringe on individual doctor or hospital prerogatives.
The negative press from lawsuits can sometimes be the catalyst for change on its own. Unfortunately, sometimes a large verdict or settlement is the only way that doctors, hospitals or insurance companies will implement reforms to make things safer.
For more information, read Forbes.