The Murky Mess of Medical Malpractice

In 2003, 17 year old Jesica was admitted to Duke University Hospital as a result of a heart condition that required a double lung and heart transplant. Jesica was under the care of an experienced surgeon who had performed over 100 heart transplants. The surgery was going smoothly, and the surgeon was preparing to complete the operation. However, he soon received a call from the immunology lab that something terrible had happened. The organs that were donated were incompatible with Jesica’s blood type. Frantic, the surgeon tried to correct this mistake by performing a second surgery, but it was too late. A simple mistake, neglecting to check blood type, cost Jesica her life.

The American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys formally defines medical malpractice as negligence by a health care provider that has resulted in injury, damage, or loss. According to a study conducted from 1991 to 2002 performed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, 7.6% of all physicians annually faced a medical malpractice claim, while only 1.7% gave compensation to the patients filing the claim. This data could be interpreted in one of two ways. Patients are either facing unjust compensation for negligence by health care professionals, or are filing false claims against physicians, resulting in an overall increase in accumulation of medical malpractice claims. Although there is no way to verify either claim, both scenarios have significant and often lifelong effects on patients and health care professionals.

For the past two years, lobbyists have been attempting to influence Congressmen and Congresswomen to overhaul the current medical malpractice laws. These laws were aimed to place strict limitations on the amount of patient compensation that can be awarded in malpractice suits, but were rejected when the healthcare bill was not passed. The complexity in creating legislation surrounding medical malpractice lies in the immense effect that these laws have on not only the victims of medical malpractice, but the health care professionals and the way they practice medicine. On one end of the spectrum, patient rights advocates believe limitations could lead to unjust compensation for injury and loss. Alternatively, there are advocates that hope to place limitations on the amount of compensation that patients can receive in order to ensure that doctors are able to freely practice medicine and therefore drive the cost of healthcare down.  

Advocates for no limits on financial compensation for medical malpractice victims believe that most patients have a justified claim against health care professionals and are unjustly compensated. Patients who have faced a crippling injury and families that have faced loss of life as a result of negligence by health care professionals are entitled to fair compensation. Money can sometimes alleviate financial burdens that are a direct result of the negligence of the clinician, but more often than not, the mistakes that physicians make cannot be truly atoned by any amount of money. What is particularly interesting is that across all specialties, patients were awarded, on average, $274,887 for malpractice indemnity payments. However, when the consequence is the loss of a family member, this amount may seem miniscule. Considering how few malpractice claims actually receive indemnity payments, it seems likely that cases of medical malpractice are evaluated thoroughly before compensation is provided. This means that if limits on compensation were placed, patient rights would be compromised, since cases that truly deserve financial support would not receive it.

On the other hand, looking at the effects that medical malpractice insurance has on health care professionals reveals a different story. One major consequence of high malpractice insurance for health care professionals is the practice of defensive medicine. Defensive medicine is when health care professionals order more tests and procedures on patients than necessary in order to protect themselves from the risk of medical malpractice. Although this might prevent errors by health care professionals, it also drives up the overall cost of health care. In fact, defensive medicine is one of the major contributing factors to increased co-pays and premiums. This inherently means that fewer people will have access to health care, since medical expenses are increasingly moving out of reach for the average American family.

Another more controversial effect of defensive medicine due to the rising costs of medical malpractice insurance is the potential impediment for progress. Since doctors are constantly worrying about involvement in medical malpractice lawsuits, they are less likely to take risks in their work and therefore are unlikely to try new therapies and drugs that may lead to impactful, life-changing patient outcomes. Of course, allowing malpractice insurance to be lowered in order to allow discoveries to be made also greatly increases the risk of medical negligence by health care professionals, which brings us back to the fundamental debate between patient rights and health care professional liberty.

There truly is no “correct” solution to the issues facing medical malpractice insurance and limits on financial awards. Moving to either extreme means losses on the other side of the debate. If the amount of compensation was limited, then there is a significant risk that patients would not be able to gain just compensation for the injuries and losses that they have suffered due to the negligence of health care professionals. On the other hand, limiting compensation awards could also mean that health care professionals would not have to resort to defensive medicine, which not only drives the cost of health care up, but also has the potential to impede the progress of health care practices and techniques. Perhaps the best way to address this convoluted debate lies in the awareness of the scope of the issue. Both doctors and patients need to bring forward their stories to help influence policymakers to make the best decisions possible to the benefit of all parties.