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“Safe Harbor” Reforms May Benefit Patients More Than Doctors?

It is no secret that litigating a medical malpractice claim can be stressful and difficult. The system is complicated, and resolving a case is not always quick. Our system of resolving medical malpractice claims is fraught with unnecessary impediments and flaws, such as frivolous lawsuits, lengthy settlement processes, and legal technicalities.

One such problem is that of doctor uncertainty. Accidents are called accidents because they are unexpected and unintended, and they can happen even in the care of well-intentioned, experienced doctors who have acted as they should. Still, they may be hit with lawsuits that gum up the courts, thus slowing the process for meritorious claims. To attack this problem, some experts propose what are called “safe harbor” laws. These are laws that protect doctors from malpractice suits in cases where they have followed accepted clinical guidelines. Essentially, doctors are provided with checklists that, if followed, will prevent their liability for malpractice claims. However, where they are not followed, the doctors will open themselves up to liability.

Despite being intended to protect doctors, a new study has found that safe harbor laws are likely more beneficial to patients than doctors. The researchers examined malpractice cases from Oregon between 2002 and 2009 to see whether they would have come out differently had Oregon had safe harbor rules in place during the period. The study found that safe harbor rules would have changed the outcome of the case in favor of the defendant physician in only 1 percent of the 266 claims it examined, so it seems that safe harbor laws do not help doctors very much.

However, while the stated purpose of safe harbor laws is to protect doctors from unwarranted lawsuits, the most important goal of any malpractice policy should be to raise the quality of care received by patients. After all, the best way to prevent lawsuits is to make sure accidents never happen in the first place. The study’s results support the notion that safe harbor rules tend to accomplish this goal. In 41 of the examined cases, the study found that the patient would not have been harmed had the physician followed the recommended guidelines.

Safe harbor rules may not reduce the number of medical malpractice claims overall, as the study shows. But they do seem to raise the quality of care patients receive, which is always an desired outcome, given that another recent study estimates that between 6 and 16 percent of hospitalizations result in preventable injuries. Doctors should be responsible for the work they do – if you feel you’ve been harmed during the course of medical treatment, you may have a claim. Please feel free to contact an attorney today.

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