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.
I worked at Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen with Sidney Wolfe. They started Public Citizen together back in 1973 and have been best friends since. Sid continues to be one of the most influential people in my life. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of saved lives can be traced back to their work in automobile and health safety. That is why I am a Preventive Medicine/public health doctor.