Monday, March 8, 2010

Misleading Medical Malpractice Statistics

I just read a May 11, 2006 article in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Claims, Errors, and Compensation Payments in Medical Malpractice” that found that of 1452 closed malpractice claims thirty-seven percent (37%) were not associated with errors. Of these cases however, 28% inexplicably got compensation on average of $313,205.00. The study also noted that claims not associated with medical error accounted for 13-16% of the total costs of all medical malpractice claims.

These are profound statistics.  But I have to believe they are a little misleading.  First, this is a tremendously small sample size.  Especially in light of the findings produced by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) with regard to patient deaths from medical malpractice:

1. 106,000 patients die each year from the negative effects of medication.

2. 80,000 patients die each year due to complications from infections incurred in hospitals.

3. 20,000 deaths per year occur from other hospital errors.

4. 12,000 people die every year as a result of unnecessary surgery.

5. 7,000 medical malpractice deaths per year are attributed to medication errors in hospitals.

This totals up to 225,000 deaths each year, due to medical negligence of some nature. This does not even account for vast number of patients that survive medical negligence but suffer permanent injuries. I could not find exact statistics on how many medical malpractice cases were filed in a given year nationally. I also couldn’t find the number of cases filed in Pittsburgh, Pa. The number is certainly less than the number of deaths attributable to medical malpractice but definitely greater than the sample size used in the New England Journal.

The perplexing part of the statistics is that 28% of the claims that were not associated with medical error were awarded money. Even crazier is that the average pay out on these cases was $313,205.00. This just does not make sense. What standards were used by the journal to deem that the cases contained no associated medical errors? What reasoning is given that such high payouts were given with no attributable medical negligence?

A vast majority of doctors these days carry malpractice insurance that lets them decide whether to settle. In my experience most doctors will not give authority to settle unless they know an error was committed. In cases where the insurer is calling the shots, it is always a dog fight to obtain any money for hurt clients. I have yet to see a medical malpractice case settle for substantial money where there was not a major blunder involved. Cases settle because the doctor or the insurer realizes there is a serious risk that a jury, based upon the evidence at hand, could find for the Plaintiff. The conclusions reached in the New England Journal’s study are at best, misleading and at worst, wrong.

Furthermore, because the health care industry lacks standardization it is often times impossible for patients to know whether their injuries were the result of negligence. I will talk about the need for increased standardization per the recommendation of a fascinating physician, Peter Pronovost , in an upcoming post.

For further reading on this topic checkout:
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