New England Journal of Medicine Study Finds that Perceived Medical Malpractice Risk Higher than Actual Risk

Our Illinois medical malpractice lawyers are seemingly engaged in constant debate about the effects of our work on the healthcare system. The “tort reform” debate is centered on discussions about the role of the medical malpractice lawsuits in helping victims receive fair compensation for their losses and ensuring accountability for negligent practitioners. Those pushing legal changes which would limit the rights of victims to receive compensation for their losses often claim that these lawsuits are used too much and force too many doctors to pay costly claims.

The political implications of these debates and the often-skewed rhetoric that has become the norm in those debates make it difficult to truly consider the issue in a fair light. Even with widespread interest in the subject of medical malpractice, there are been surprisingly few systematic studies that seek to illustrate that actual risks that a doctor has of facing a claim, the size of a possible payment, and the cumulative effect over the course of a physician’s career.

A New England Journal of Medicine study was published today that seeks to shed new light on these issues. It used a methodological approach that sought to eliminate the problems with previous studies which were often plagued by low sample sizing, reliance on self-reports, low response rates, and lack of information on payment size. This latest study used physician level malpractice claims from large professional liability insurers to characterize malpractice risk according to twenty five different specialties.

The results offer a helpful indicator of the actual way that medical malpractice lawsuits affect physicians. For example, far from widespread claims of mass problems caused by the legal filings, only 1.6% of all physicians had made an actual indemnity payment for medical malpractice. There was understandable variation among various specialties-for example there were more in neurosurgery and cardiovascular surgery than in pediatrics and psychiatry. Similarly, there was variation among those practice areas that had the highest total claims paid out. Gynecology, for example, was near the middle of the pack regarding the risk for individual practitioners to be sued. However, gynecologists as a whole had the highest payment rate. This is understandable, as gynecologists are not targeted more than others for claims, but when they do commit malpractice the costs tend to be higher because of the expense associated with birth injuries.

Interestingly, contrary to boisterous political claims about a “growing epidemic” of malpractice problems, the results showed mostly stable claim rates. In fact, in two stretches over the last twenty years (1991-1995 and 2001-2003) the average risk to some physicians decreased considerably. Also contrary to perception, there were actually few so-called “outlier awards” which were defined as those exceeding $1 million. News stories may most often be filled with stories of these large awards, but they are certainly not the norm. As these results demonstrate, they are more likely only awarded when a mistake was made that causes lifelong problems or other egregious circumstances necessitating the large award.

Our Chicago medical malpractice attorneys understand the important role that the legal system provides for all local victims of medical errors. Fair studies like this one are helpful reminders that the overheated rhetoric that so often clouds public debate about malpractice often bears little connection to the truth.

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