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Refocusing the Debate: Litigation Improves Patient Safety

Many aspects of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) are set to take effect this year. Expectedly, this is causing certain groups to make dubious claims about the effect the law will have on businesses and the “tyranny” of requiring health insurance. Those who support the law are doing a decent job of reminding that the goal of the law is actually to lower costs–and there are signs that the goal will be met over the long-term.

But it is also crucial not to forget a second aspect of the law–actually improving patient safety. As med mal attorneys, this is a topic that we frequently discuss. It remains surprising that more attention is not placed on actual health outcomes, because many different policy decisions-at the federal, state, local, and institutional level–affect the quality of services that are provided.

More Transparency
The need to re-focus on patient safety was the topic of an op-ed recently published in the New York Times. The article mentions how tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of medical patients die every year in way that could have been prevented if error-free medical care was provided. As with similar industries, the best way to fix the problem is to shine a spotlight on it. Analyzing the scope and details of the problem and providing incentives to enact changes are the keys to improvement.

Even those who are virulently against preserving litigation rights for injured patients admit that patient safety begins with transparency. That is why it is important to point out that new research is showing that, far from acting as any sort of impediment, proper use of medical malpractice lawsuits actually increases patient safety transparency.

Some argue that the tort system caused doctors and hospitals to “clam up” when mistakes were made out of fear that honesty would affect their legal liability. But, the evidence suggests something far different. As the NYT editorial pointed out: “the openness and transparency promoted by patient safety advocates appear to be influencing hospitals’ responses to litigation risk.”

New Patient Safety Research
The author–a law professor–conducted a survey on hospital risk management, legal claims, and quality improvement. those surveys included some in-depth interviews that yield helpful information about how legal risk actually influence patient safety.

Instead of being secretive, more and more health care professional are becoming more honest with patients and their families following adverse medical events. This is great news for those who care about honesty and accountability in the medical setting. We can only hope that the trend continues.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new research were the finding on the causes of the change in mindset among healthcare professionals. Most notably, being honest simply works in the hospitals best interest in the long-run. By admitting error and being more open to fair settlements early on, facilities are able to save on legal costs and minimize the overall cost of dealing with errors.

But not only that, facilities are actually using malpractice lawsuit data to identify risk areas. In other words, the lawsuits are key pieces of information which show where improvement is needed, allowing facilities to better target their quality efforts. Far from being a deterrent, the legal system therefore plays a critical role in the overall patient safety regime.

See Other Blog Posts:

Settlement in Stent Malpractice Case

More Federal Medical Billing Transparency On the Way?