Medical Malpractice Awards Increase Safety Not Medical Costs

The Delaware News Journal recently published a provocative opinion piece concerning how medical malpractice awards actually increase the safety of medicine rather than drive up healthcare costs. The editorial is supported by research evidence from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office. While advocates of tort reform continue to claim medical malpractice is the culprit for rising medical costs, the evidence provided demonstrates the contrary to be true. The News Journal opines,”Tort reformers blame the prospect of malpractice suits for the proliferation of “defensive medicine” and thus higher health-care costs in general. Doctors, they argue, prescribe costly tests that patients don’t need in order to protect themselves against suits. However, extensive research – including some done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office – has shown that tort reform has had no influence on health-care costs. Doctors practice defensive medicine simply because it generates extra income.The effect that lawsuits have had on doctors’ malpractice insurance rates has also been negligible. Insurance premiums have still increased in states with extensive tort-reform measures, researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded after reviewing 11 major studies. Rates in those states rates have gone up 6 percent – compared with 13 percent in non-tort-reform states.”

In making the claim that malpractice awards actually increase safety in the practice of medicine, the author cites the example of anesthesiology, once the target of malpractice lawsuits. “In the 1970s and ‘80s, anesthesiologists were paying some of the highest malpractice premiums in medicine. Problems were frequent, serious and directly attributable to anesthesia. It was estimated that 1 in 6,000 administrations of anesthesia resulted in death. Serious brain injuries were even more frequent. In 1982, after a spate of bad publicity triggered by large malpractice verdicts – several won by Moore – the American Society of Anesthesiologists conducted a comprehensive assessment of what had been injuring patients. They then revamped their procedures, established mandatory monitoring, improved training, limited the number of hours anesthesiologists could work without rest, redesigned machines and outfitted others with safety devices. Within 10 years, the mortality rate from anesthesia dropped to 1 in 200,000 administrations. And anesthesiologists’ malpractice insurance rates fell to among the lowest of any specialty.”