This week, the official journal of the American College of Chest Physicians published an article that takes a different perspective on medical malpractice. Instead of complaining of the unfair hassles that plague doctors after a dangerous mistake, this article effectively debunked common myths about medical malpractice. Two of these myths are particularly relevant.
First, the study noted that medical malpractice awards rarely amount to "jackpot justice." In other words, while plaintiffs do receive large awards, those amounts are carefully calibrated to compensate victims for the lifetime consequences of a doctor's mistake. More importantly, medical malpractice litigation can be very difficult when a hospital or insurer pours extensive resources into the fight. Experienced and dedicated advocacy can cut through these efforts - but not all plaintiffs work with lawyers who are up to the task.
A second common myth involves the idea that "tort reform" will help cut healthcare costs for the nation. "Tort reform" essentially means restricting the rights of medical malpractice victims by rewriting laws to favor doctors and hospitals. These laws often include caps on the amounts that plaintiffs can require and onerous pre-trial requirements that can deter some victims and lawyers.
The recent wave of angst on the part of the medical community is just one more facet of the ongoing debate about how to effectively compensate the victims of doctors' mistakes. If doctors truly want to avoid medical malpractice claims, they should start by being more careful with patient safety - not by complaining about how unpleasant it is to face a lawsuit. Life after a serious medical error is far more difficult than waiting four years for the outcome of a lawsuit.
Sources: CHEST Journal, "Five Myths of Medical Malpractice," David A. Hyman and Charles Silver, Jan. 2013; The New York Times, "The Drawn Out Process of the Medical Lawsuit," Pauline W. Chen, Jan. 24, 2013