Research Sheds Light on the Truth about Lawsuits and the Medical Profession

A recent USA Today article by Carl T. Bogus shed some interesting light on the truth about the way the civil justice system affects the cost of health care in our country. We have all heard the recent furor of skyrocketing malpractice premiums driving physicians out of business. Naturally, the thought of a shortage of doctors to treat those with injuries and illnesses makes us a little uncomfortable. We have been told by insurers that the cause of these sky-high premiums is unjustified lawsuits by people trying to make a buck from their doctor.

As we all know, there are problems in the health care industry. But Carl Bogus shows that cause of these problems is not what we have been told it is.
The article points to research by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to show that, from 1995 to 2000, new medical malpractice claims declined by about 4%.

We also see that jurors are not “overly sympathetic to patients with unfortunate medical outcomes regardless of whether anyone is to blame.” The truth shows nearly the opposite. Research by Valerie Hans and William Lofquist shows that more than 80% of people beginning jury duty say they believe there are too many frivolous lawsuits. According to the researchers, only a third believes that most plaintiffs have legitimate grievances.

From a study done by the National Center for State Courts, we learn how difficult it is for plaintiffs to win. The rate of victory for a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case is 30%. That is lower than any other category of litigation. Strong evidence is needed to be victorious in such a case.

Even in such cases where plaintiffs are victorious, studies have shown that large “out of control” and “runaway” verdicts we hear so much about are not an accurate picture of reality. According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, when a plaintiff is successful, 15% of verdicts are above $1 million, but of that percentage, 75% or more are decreased by the judge or appellate courts.

Bogus points out what likely is a key factor in the crisis: the downturn of the stock market, which only recently has been reversed. This down turn significantly reduced insurance company reserves and investment income. He uses the example of when one of the largest malpractice insurers, The St. Paul Companies, caused havoc in four states by halting the writing of malpractice policies. This problem was the result of major investment losses, including at least $70 million in Enron.

The dark reality of medical malpractice still looms large. According to the Institute of Medicine, 44,000 to 98,000 hospital patients die every year from preventable accidents. It is natural that some physicians will make mistakes, no one is perfect. However, the disciplinary system is lax and few doctors who have multiple malpractice claims against them are ever disciplined. According to Public Citizen and reports filed by the National Practitioner Data Bank, about 5% of physicians account for the majority of all medical malpractice claims. Also, only 13.3% of doctors who have paid five or more malpractice claims have been subject to professional discipline. Little is done to motivate change in malpracticing physicians.

We all know there are problems with our health care system. If we want to solve these problems, we must know the source of the problems.
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