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In 2006, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Risk Management Foundation studied over one thousand malpractice files from multiple insurance companies throughout the United States. Claims involving surgery, obstetrics, medication, and delay in diagnosis accounted for 80% of all malpractice claims filed, and the reviewers found that over two thirds of the claims involved clear error. The results of the study confirmed that the majority of medical malpractice lawsuits have merit; they are not “frivolous”. In fact, most medical malpractice lawsuits which lacked clear evidence of error received no award at trial. Most malpractice suits involve severe and permanent injury such as patients whose radiologic studies were misread, causing a delay in diagnosis of lung or breast cancer; or patients who were seriously injured or died after receiving incorrect medication.

A separate study in New Jersey (the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) showed that malpractice lawsuits have a minimal effect on medical practitioners. Physicians in states without “caps” on awards do not relocate to other states. Most “tort reform” has not resulting in increasing physician supply or in reducing insurance or litigation costs.

More recent studies have shown that reforms in the health care industry would reduce the number of patients injured by medical malpractice. Medicare has refused to reimburse hospitals for a number of incidents such as patient falls and development of bedsores in the belief that the quality of care will improve and such incidents can be drastically reduced. Reducing the number of patients injured seems to be a better approach to the problem than denying compensation to the injured.

Peter commented to a prior post that “200 million is lost annually in New Jersey, 30% of which is paid in obstetric claims.” Infants who are injured due to obstetrical malpractice require a lifetime of expensive treatment and, sometimes, residential care. These injuries not “frivolous” nor are the suits in which awards are given. The burden is on the parents and then on society when the taxpayers have to assume the burden of care when the award has been exhausted and when the parents are no longer available to provide home care. Again, the answer may lie in reforming the health care system to prevent such errors. The creation of web sites to advise the public of the number of lawsuits of physicians will help to reduce injuries as will the website recently created which allows comparison of various hospitals. Patients should be encouraged to research these sites before selecting a hospital or medical provider. A physician who has numerous lawsuits is the exception, not the rule. The Board of Medical Examiners should focus on the few practitioners who have multiple lawsuits. A small percentage of physicians are responsible for a large percentage of injuries.

See Claims, Errors, and Compensation Payments in Medical Malpractice Litigation, New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 354:2024-2033, No. 19, May 2006.

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