Approximately 440,000 people are killed every year in the U.S. as a result of preventable medical errors. This is a staggering number. Despite this figure, a recent report from the consumer group Public Citizen informs us that medical malpractice payments are actually trending downwards. How could medical malpractice claims be on the decline despite significant damages due to medical errors? Further, is the Public Citizen report even valid; or, as the American Medical Association (AMA) claims, is it “inherently flawed?” Let’s take a closer look and see if we can answer these questions.
Medical Malpractice Claims on the Decline?
The Public Citizen report finds that the volume and value of medical malpractice claims has declined over the last 15 years. In looking at just the last few years, the report estimates that medical malpractice payments grew from 9,370 in 2012 to 9,677 in 2013. Despite this relatively slight increase, overall current payments look insignificant when compared with the 16,565 payments reported in 2001.
Further, in terms of payment values, the value of payments rose from $3.1 billion in 2012 to $3.3 billion in 2013. Granted, payments did increase, but according to Public Citizen, this increase is negated when the numbers are converted to actual and inflation-adjusted dollars. For the sake of comparison, the value of medical malpractice payments on behalf of doctors in inflation-adjusted dollars was $5.8 billion in 2001.
Public Citizen says the drop in malpractice claims is due to medical practitioners who have been “feverishly advocating” for caps on malpractice damages since the early 2000s. Nonetheless, the report notes that “despite rhetoric about ‘frivolous lawsuits,’ the vast majority of medical malpractice payments compensate for injuries that no one would deem frivolous.”
Growing Concern Over Medical Errors
Public Citizen is troubled with its findings since there is no sign of a decrease in medical errors. According to the group, medical malpractice claims are lowering while “the actual crisis over avoidable medical errors is worse than we ever knew.” The group supports its claim with the following data:
- A 2010 Department of Health and Human Services report that suggests approximately 80,000 Medicare patients die annually following preventable adverse medical events.
- A 2010 study of North Carolina hospitals that found that approximately 20% of patients suffered adverse medical events, 60% of which were avoidable.
- A 2011 Health Affairs study that found errors or adverse events in one-third of hospital admissions
- A 2013 Journal of Patient Safety report which estimates that more than 400,000 patients, each year, die prematurely due to preventable harm in hospitals.
Is the Public Citizen Report Valid?
According to the AMA, the answer to this question is a resounding “no.” Public Citizen reached its findings after analyzing data from the federal government’s National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). However, according to the AMA, “The Government Accountability Office has determined that the NPDB is riddled with duplicate entries, inaccurate data, and incomplete and inappropriate information.” Thus, says the AMA, since Public Citizen based its findings on such incomplete and erroneous data, the group’s study is “inherently flawed.”
The AMA is also quick to point out that the Public Citizen report, and the NPDB data, excludes a large percentage of malpractice claims that were “dropped, withdrawn, or dismissed.” The AMA estimates this percentage to be 65%. The AMA further states that the expense of dropped claims accounts for 38% of total defense .
The AMA is not the sole party that disputes the Public Citizen report. Douglas Merrill, MD, of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., criticizes the report as well. Merrill, who is also the director of the Center for Perioperative Services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., believes the report is an overly simplistic interpretation of complex data. According to Merrill, “No credible caregiver would say that healthcare can’t be improved, whether regarding access or quality, or error rates. However, no credible healthcare analyst would use insurance data as an accurate descriptor of the need for or the intensity of those efforts.”
Two Things are for Certain
Despite questions over the validity of the Public Citizen report, we believe two certainties stand quite apparent here. The first is that death or damages from preventable medical errors is currently a very serious concern. Given the staggering approximation that 440,000 patients die every year due to these errors, medical errors present an alarming risk in today’s healthcare.
The second certainty is that if you have suffered injuries from a medical error, you should consult an experienced medical malpractice attorney for assistance. An experienced attorney, like those at Phillips Law Firm, will be able to answer your questions, and if applicable, help compensate you for your losses. Medical errors should not go un-checked; and, your path to justice should never be obstructed. Contact one of our attorneys today to get the help you deserve!