Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Saturday, July 11, 2009

More negligence, less compensation

Medical malpractice payout
numbers fall to record lows

By David Baker
Posted Saturday July 11, 2009

Payments for medical malpractice were at or near record lows in 2008, not because there was less malpractice, but because fewer people received compensation.

That’s the findings of a new study by Public Citizen, the Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan consumer organization.

“Medical malpractice is so common, and litigation over it so rare, that between three and seven Americans die from medical errors for every one who receives a payment for any malpractice claim,” the authors say in the report.

"These are people who died or were left with serious permanent injuries – out of work, with enormous medical costs for the rest of their lives – and they and their families are getting nothing from the doctors and hospitals responsible," said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

Public Citizen used information from the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank, which since 1990 has collected information on malpractice payouts.

The study found that in 2008 there were 11,037 payments for malpractice. This was a 30.7 percent drop from the average number of payouts in the preceding 17 years.

It was the third straight year in which the number of payments dropped.

The study also found that the number of payments per physician was down in 2006 (the most recent year for which physician numbers are available) compared to the historical average. There were 13.5 payments per million physicians in 2006, a drop from the average of the preceding 15 years of 29.2 percent.

Also down to the lowest level on record is the number of payments per capita. In 1991 there were 53.1 payments per million U.S. residents. That figure fluctuated in a narrow range until 2007, when it dropped to 38.3 per million people, and then in 2008 to 36.3.

“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 study says. “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,” the report says. “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 of 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.”

The report notes that because the commission relies on self-reporting, it is almost certain that the actual number of ‘never events’ is far higher.

The study is on the Web at: