Medicine is a massive industry in the United States. So is insurance. And the legal profession. It’s easy to imagine then that there would be a whole lot of money—and controversy—at the point where all three collide: medical malpractice lawsuits.
Some medical malpractice lawsuits can result in huge judgments or settlements, often into the millions of dollars. These huge figures attract not only lawyers, but also potential plaintiffs, higher insurance premiums, and stricter tort laws. So in the end, who—if anyone—benefits most from large medical malpractice awards?
In a recent article in Missouri Lawyers Weekly, publisher-turned-attorney Steve Cohen takes on the issue. Currently 29 out of 50 states have legal caps on pain and suffering awards, and others limit the winning legal counsel’s fee in high-dollar cases. Still others have set narrower statutes of limitation in an effort to decrease the number of lawsuits filed. Cohen contends that these steps have been ineffective.
In a related aspect of the broader issue, there is an ongoing argument about the role of “tort reform” on the cost of healthcare. Many of those in favor of stricter regulation on medical malpractice suits argue that the potential for a doctor to have to pay such a large amount of money in court drives up insurance costs for the doctor, then healthcare costs for the patient. Instead, Cohen points out, research by several different organizations—including the Congressional Budget Office—suggests that tort reform has no impact on healthcare costs. The “defensive medicine” practiced by some doctors isn’t a reaction to lawsuits. In fact, it can result in extra income for a doctor.
Cohen uses the example of anesthesiologists to provide a case study of how lawsuits, insurance, healthcare costs, and practice methods come together. 30 or 40 years ago, anesthesia was a risky procedure with about 1 in every 6,000 uses resulting in death. As a result, there were many malpractice lawsuits with high-dollar results. Malpractice insurance for anesthesiologists was consequently the most expensive in the business.
Motivated by these lawsuits, anesthesiologists developed better techniques, instituted new rules regarding training requirements and shift length limits, and generally took more steps to be careful and responsible. After some years, anesthesia mortality rates eventually fell to about 1 in every 200,000 applications and malpractice insurance for anesthesiologists became among the least costly out of all specialists.
So what can we take away from this? First of all, this is an ongoing issue that is by no means resolved, nor will it be anytime soon. However, Cohen’s suggestion that tort reform may not be the best answer looks to be a valid one. Not only do steps such as limiting awards in malpractice cases have little effect on overall healthcare costs, but they also give no incentive to change, which should be the real goal of medical malpractice suits.
As was the case for anesthesiologists, the potential for very large awards serves as a warning and influences change towards making a doctor’s practice safer, regardless of insurance costs. When doctors are left to react to these malpractice cases on their own, the most sensible result is lower malpractice rates, which leads to lower insurance costs, and possibly lower healthcare costs.
Still, doctors are human, so mistakes and medical malpractice will always be an issue. If you have been the victim of medical malpractice, you need an attorney. The experienced workers’ compensation and medical malpractice attorneys at Kullmann, Klein & Dioneda, P.C. can help, no matter your situation. Call toll-free at 1-800-536-8844 or contact us online today for a free consultation and case evaluation.