Medical Malpractice Epidemic Persists Even as Compensation to Victims Decreases Part III

For part II click here.

Part III

Despite the hysteria surrounding debates over medical malpractice litigation, experts have repeatedly concluded that several times as many patients suffer avoidable injuries as those who sue. The best known such finding was included in the Institute of Medicine's (IOM) seminal 1999 study, "To Err Is Human," which concluded that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die every year because of avoidable medical errors. Fewer than 15,000 people (including those with non-fatal outcomes) received compensation for medical malpractice that year, and in 2008, the number receiving compensation fell to just over 11,000.

There is no evidence that errors are any less rampant today. Most of the IOM's safety recommendations have been ignored. Meanwhile, various safety indicators continue to raise alarms. For example, the Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals, learned about 116 occasions in which surgeons operated on the wrong part of a patient's body in 2008 and 71 times in which foreign objects were left inside patients' bodies. Health experts call these "never events," meaning that they simply should not happen at all.

Proposals to limit patients' legal rights have sprung up in the debate over health reform. The most popular idea this year is to establish special tribunals that would theoretically offer payments to more patients but in smaller amounts. Policy makers who wish to cut costs should steer clear of these proposals, Arkush said. The high volume of medical errors and the current infrequency of payments to victims ensure that proposals to increase the number of payments would inevitably cost far more than the current system.

The only economically feasible and, indeed, humane way to improve the system is to reduce the number of senseless and tragic medical errors in our hospitals. In its report, Public Citizen calls on Congress to put safety measures in place that would set the nation on course to meet the IOM's goal of cutting the number of avoidable deaths in half in five years.

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