Malpractice payouts to injured patients and families declined for the third year in a row and amount to somewhere between 0.18% and 0.6% of U.S. medical costs, according to a new study from Public Citizen.
It would be great if improved patient safety was responsible for the decline, but that is highly unlikely, according to the consumer group’s analysis, which said that the reduced payouts appear to be because fewer injured patients are being compensated.
The study also undercuts the idea that the system is glutted with large numbers of “frivolous” lawsuits. According to a press release from Public Citizen:
More than 80 percent of the money paid out for medical malpractice in 2008 was for cases involving “significant permanent injuries”; “major permanent injuries”; injuries resulting in quadriplegia, brain damage or the need for permanent care; or death, according to NPDB [National Practitioner Data Bank] reporting.
Despite the hysteria surrounding debates over medical malpractice litigation, experts have repeatedly concluded that several times as many patients suffer avoidable injuries as those who sue. The best known such finding was included in the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) seminal 1999 study, “To Err Is Human,” which concluded that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die every year because of avoidable medical errors. Fewer than 15,000 people (including those with non-fatal outcomes) received compensation for medical malpractice that year, and in 2008, the number receiving compensation fell to just over 11,000.
As an advocate for patient safety and author of a new book on how we can all improve the quality and safety of the health care we receive, I agree that the only humane way to reform medical malpractice is to take seriously patient safety and implement systematic improvements to cut the numbers of injuries.