Study FInds Malpractice Suits Can Make Hospitals Safer

A new survey of hospital risk managers finds that malpractice lawsuits can give them important clues to holes in their hospitals’ patient safety nets that need patching.

The study by UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz was excerpted in the New York Times op-ed page. Professor Schwartz writes:

New evidence … contradicts the conventional wisdom that malpractice litigation compromises the patient safety movement’s call for transparency. In fact, the opposite appears to be occurring: the openness and transparency promoted by patient safety advocates appear to be influencing hospitals’ responses to litigation risk.

My study also shows that malpractice suits are playing an unexpected role in patient safety efforts, as a source of valuable information about medical error. Over 95 percent of the hospitals in my study integrate information from lawsuits into patient safety efforts. And risk managers and patient-safety personnel overwhelmingly report that lawsuit data have proved useful in efforts to identify and address error.

One might think that hospitals would have little to learn from lawsuits, given other requirements that hospitals report, investigate and analyze medical error. But participants in my study said that lawsuits can reveal previously unknown incidents of medical errors – particularly diagnostic and treatment errors with delayed manifestations that other reporting systems are not designed to collect.

Lawsuits can also reveal errors that should have been reported but were not – medical providers notoriously underreport errors (although studies have shown that the threat of litigation is not responsible for this underreporting) and lawsuits may fill these gaps.

Professor Schwartz’s findings, which readers can also read about here, should help the pushback against misguided “reforms” that purport to make hospitals safer by making it harder for patients to sue for accountability when they have suffered serious harm from medical errors. As she reports, even hospital risk managers are finding that lawsuits are valuable sources of information about what really goes in inside hospitals. And is that any surprise?

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