Medical Complaints

Not So Frivolous

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Claim For years the medical establishment has railed about an epidemic of baseless malpractice cases said to be driving up costs for patients and forcing them to find new physicians because doctors were retiring in droves. These frivolous lawsuits, medical leaders claimed, were not the result of medical errors -- which the Institute of Medicine has estimated kill as many as 98,000 Americans annually -- or substandard care, but mostly stemmed from unavoidable complications.

The issue became a major topic in the 2004 presidential campaign, and the Bush administration has made tort reform -- much of it centered on limiting the amount of money injured patients could recover -- one of its primary, and as yet unrealized, goals.

The Research A study by Harvard physicians and lawyers of nearly 1,500 closed malpractice cases concludes that there is no such epidemic -- nor is the malpractice system as arbitrary as its detractors maintain. The study, funded by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, was published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Using randomly selected claims from five insurance companies, researchers found that most involved serious mistakes, such as delayed diagnosis or a medication error. More than 80 percent of patients suffered serious physical injury; in 26 percent of cases, the patient died. Overall, 63 percent of claims were judged to be the result of a preventable error, while 37 percent were not, although researchers noted that some of these were close calls. And in 27 percent of cases where researchers found medical error, plaintiffs received no payment.

Who Gets Paid While lead author David Studdert and his colleagues did not find that the malpractice system was the lottery its critics describe, they did find that litigation costs were "exorbitant," consuming 54 percent of the compensation that plaintiffs received, which averaged about $521,000.

-- Sandra G. Boodman

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