In his 2006 State of the Union Address, President Bush called on Congress to restrict patient access to the courts, claiming that access to healthcare is threatened because “lawsuits are driving many good doctors out of practice.” But, according to statistics published by the American Medical Association (AMA), the number of practicing physicians is growing faster than the population.
President Bush has also described physicians’ malpractice insurance premiums as “skyrocketing” because of medical malpractice lawsuits. But in Florida, one of the states characterized by the AMA as being in “crisis,” the Office of Insurance Regulation reported that the 15 largest medical malpractice insurers saw profits of $803 million in 2005.
Many consumer advocates see this attack on patient rights as just one piece of a larger effort by the business lobby to protect businesses from being held accountable when they recklessly or negligently hurt people.
Public Citizen, a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization representing consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts, reviewed the most recent publicly available data from the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). The NPDB contains data on malpractice payments made on behalf of doctors as well as information about disciplinary actions against them by state medical boards or hospitals. Most payers of malpractice claims are insurance companies; but the data also includes payments by entities such as state-run insurance funds and self-insured health care providers.
The data shows that the court-based compensation system is, on the whole, a rational one that provides money for valid claims and dismisses invalid ones. These findings are confirmed by other research, including a recent study conducted by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, see Claims, Errors and Compensation
Public Citizen examined the issue of medical liability, concluding that the NPDB data shows that the claims of the business and medical lobbies are exaggerated and unsupported by the facts. Fundamentally, an agenda that blames injured patients and seeks to close access to the courts – contravening a Constitutional right – is about protecting business profits over patient health. It is far past time for real health care reform, and for a health care system that puts patient safety first.
Public Citizen Key Findings
Medical Malpractice Payments Are Actually Declining. The number and the total value of malpractice payments to patients have been flat since 1991. Both show a significant decline since 2001, when the last so-called “crisis” began. The number of malpractice payments declined 15.4 percent between 1991 and 2005. Adjusted for inflation, the average annual payment for verdicts declined 8 percent between 1991 and 2005.
Payments for million-dollar verdicts were less than 3 percent of all payments in 2005.
Payments Correspond to Severity of Injury. The medical liability system is not irrational – patients do not win big jury awards for frivolous claims. Instead, evidence shows the current system works reasonably well. Patients with minor injuries receive little compensation, while the bulk of malpractice awards occur in cases involving severely debilitating injuries or death. Over 64 percent of payments in 2005 involved death, or major or significant injuries. Payments for “insignificant injury” were less than one-third of 1 percent of payments in 2005.
Patient Safety Is the Real Crisis. The latest NPDB data underscore the fact that the real medical malpractice crisis continues to be inadequate patient safety, rather than the legal system. Instead of being distracted by business lobby myths about the court system, heath care providers should improve patient safety and better protect the health of patients.
Improving Patient Safety Will Save Lives. One-third of malpractice cases resulting in a malpractice payment in 2005 (4,504) involved the death of a patient. Yet, as a 1999 landmark study by the Institute of Medicine showed, an estimated 44,000 to 98,000 patient deaths occur each year as a result of preventable medical errors in hospitals. Stemming preventable errors alone would, conservatively, prevent ten times as many deaths as are now accounted for by malpractice cases.
For the complete article on the Public Citizen Study, click here.