For the third straight year, medical malpractice payments were at record lows, finds a new study released by Public Citizen. The decline, however, is likely due to less injured patients receiving compensation, not improved health safety.
2008 saw the lowest number of medical malpractice payments since the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank began compiling malpractice statistics. In 2008, payments were 30.7 percent lower than averages recorded in all previous years.
In the report titled, The 0.6 Percent Bogeyman, the nonprofit watchdog group states, “between three and seven Americans die from medical errors for every 1 who receives a payment for any type of malpractice claim.”
Estimated total health care costs for the U.S. in 2006 were $2.1 trillion – of which 0.6% (or $3.9 billion) is representative of malpractice payments. The total value of malpractice payments declined even further in 2008 to $3.6 billion.
The majority of medical malpractice payments were awarded to patients suffering from the most serious of injuries. About 80 percent was paid out for cases that involved “significant” or “major” permanent injuries including brain damage, death, quadriplegia or the need for permanent care, according to NPDB reporting.
Despite debates over medical malpractice disputes, experts have repeatedly concluded that several times as many patients suffer avoidable injuries as those that sue. The best known finding was included in the Institute of Medicine’s seminal 1999 study, “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System” which found avoidable medical errors cause up to 98,000 deaths a year. Less than 15,000 people (including non-fatal injuries) received compensation for medical malpractice that year, and in 2008, the number declined even lower to just over 11,000.
Most safety suggestions by the IOM have been continually ignored, while several safety indicators continue to raise concerns. For instance, the Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals, reports that in 2008, surgeons operated on the wrong part of the patient’s body 116 times and there were 71 reported incidents in which foreign objects were left inside patients’ bodies. These incidents are referred to as “never events,” described as errors in medical care that are clearly preventable and serious in consequence for patients.
“Proposals to limit patients’ legal rights have sprung up in the debate over health reform. The most popular idea this year is to establish special tribunals that would theoretically offer payments to more patients but in smaller amounts. Policy makers who wish to cut costs should steer clear of these proposals, Arkush said. The high volume of medical errors and the current infrequency of payments to victims ensure that proposals to increase the number of payments would inevitably cost far more than the current system.
The only economically feasible and, indeed, humane way to improve the system is to reduce the number of senseless and tragic medical errors in our hospitals. In its report, Public Citizen calls on Congress to put safety measures in place that would set the nation on course to meet the IOM’s goal of cutting the number of avoidable deaths in half in five years.”
Excerpt quoted from Public Citizen’s Press Release. #