Medical Malpractice Myths: Separating Fact From Fiction

A recent study by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that large medical malpractice payouts (“catastrophic claims”) make up less than 1 percent of all medical payments in the U.S. As lead author Marty Makary notes, the assertion that medical malpractice lawsuits raise health care costs is simply not true.

Repeated studies continue to debunk the medical malpractice myths perpetuated by insurance industry lobbyists and some (though certainly not all) medical professionals. What are these myths? How can you tell fact from fiction?

Myth No. 1: A majority of medical malpractice claims are frivolous.

Fact: A 2006 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that only 3 percent of the 1,452 closed medical malpractice claims could be considered “frivolous.” The remaining 97 percent involved actual injury. Reviewers judged that at least 63 percent of the claims were due to a medical error that constituted medical malpractice.

Myth No. 2: There are more medical malpractice claims filed than incidences of medical malpractice.

Fact: The majority of people injured by medical malpractice never bring a claim in court — as many as seven in eight patients never seek relief for the injuries they suffer. The reality is bleak and points to what some call a medical negligence epidemic: Medical malpractice kills up to 98,000 people in the U.S. every year, making it the sixth largest cause of death. Yet many of these cases go unreported and victims are left without compensation.

Myth No. 3: It is impossible to prevent adverse medical events from occurring.

Fact: Most people injured by medical malpractice are injured by preventable errors. For example, surgical “never events” — errors that should never occur, such as leaving a sponge inside a patient or performing the wrong procedure on a patient — occur approximately 4,044 times every year, according to a study by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Surgeons operate on the wrong body site 20 times every week. There are simple solutions to prevent these medical errors, such as using electronic tracking devices to detect how many sponges are used during surgery.

Myth No. 4: Most people file malpractice claims for the money.

Fact: First, most medical malpractice claims are not catastrophic claims. Payouts over $1 million tend to be reserved for claims involving wrongful death, injuries to infants and serious injuries requiring lifelong care, such as quadriplegia and brain damage, according to a 2013 study by the National Association for Healthcare Quality.

Second, there are many reasons for filing medical malpractice claims. Yes, injured individuals need to recover compensation to cover their medical bills and other expenses that resulted from the medical errors, but more often, that is not their main reason for bringing med mal lawsuits. According to researchers at Harvard, most people file medical malpractice claims to find answers. What happened to their loved one and why? At the University of Michigan, medical malpractice claims have dropped since the organization instituted a policy of apologizing and being open with patients when errors occur.

Myth No. 5: Medical malpractice claims cause larger insurance premiums.

Fact: The research on this subject is somewhat ambiguous. Some studies show a slight decrease in insurance premiums in states with tort reform (caps on medical malpractice damages) while others show an increase in premiums. In realty, insurance rate increases are much more correlated to the insurance industry’s economic cycle than they are to medical malpractice claims. Furthermore, health care costs have risen, but the number of medical malpractice claims has decreased dramatically in the past decade.

As you can see, there is a lot of misinformation on the Web regarding medical malpractice. The truth is that medical malpractice lawsuits not only help patients find answers and recover compensation for their injuries, but they also ensure that medical professionals and facilities put patient safety, and not financial gain, first.

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