Do Cost Barriers Prevent Poor Patients from Suing for Medical Malpractice?

If tort reform advocates were to be believed, filing a lawsuit and getting redress for harm caused by medical malpractice is as easy as tying one’s shoe. Part of the public perception problem faced by medical malpractice lawyers seeking to warn about the dangers of these “reform” efforts that handcuff injury victims are mistaken assumptions about how the legal process actually works. There is nothing “easy” about running the legal gauntlet of filing a complaint, avoiding dismissal, spending time and money on the discovery process, getting to trial, convincing a jury of the merit of the case, winning the case, and then actually going through the hurdles of collecting the award.

Even before any extra roadblocks are put in the way via tort reform, the process is difficult for many community members. Unfortunately, in direct contrast to the notion that “justice is blind” and everyone has equal access to the court system, new scholarship suggests that access to justice may be harder for more vulnerable members of our community. Specifically, a new story in Health Day suggests that the poor are less likely to seek redress following medical errors. This is in stark contrast to the ridiculous notion put forward by many tort reformers that poor people think of lawsuits are a cheap way to make a buck. Each Illinois medical malpractice lawyer at our firm knows that those notions have zero bases in fact, and are incredibly harmful in that they lead to legislation that actually hurts these individuals even more.

The new study, lead by a doctor at the Monterey Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Institute, involved researching litigation records and rates of medical malpractice claims compared across income spectrums. The report, published in an edition of the Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, found that the more income one has the more likely they are to sue their doctor for medical malpractice. In trying to pinpoint reasons for the discrepancy those involved explained that two primary factors may be: (1) the poor may not have enough money to initiate a suit; (2) they may have less access to or information about the legal process.

These findings run completely counter to the assumptions of many-including doctors themselves. The lead author explained that many physicians have an “unconscious bias” in which they assume lower income patients might be more likely to sue. As a result the actual treatments provided to those patients may be altered. Alternatively, some physicians may be prone not to treat certain patients at all for unfounded fear of litigation.

The authors of the study explained part of the solution includes disseminating more accurate information about the litigation rates and demographics. This will help these professionals to become a bit more culturally sensitive-understanding the hidden biases that they may have and figuring out ways to limit that bias. Summarizing the effort, the lead author explained that “Improving education and training for the delivery of culturally competent care […] can positively impact health disparities, the quality of medical care, physician satisfaction, and the incident of medical malpractice litigation.”

See Our Related Blog Posts:

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