Who Benefits From Medical Malpractice Caps?

  Slate Magazine recently ran an article on the current push to put damage caps on the amount of money doctors would have to pay plaintiffs in malpractice suits. The article, by Darshak Sanghavi, paints a grim picture of physicians who believe themselves to be under siege by an epidemic of false or frivolous lawsuits, while in reality it is very difficult for those injured through their doctor’s negligence to receive the justice and compensation they deserve.

This mentality, according to Sanghavi, stems from frightening anecdotes like that of family physician Daniel Merenstein. In 1999, Merenstein met with a fifty-three year old patient for a routine checkup. During the checkup, Merenstein advised his patient of the problems with using blood tests to screen for prostate cancer: such screening methods lead to many false positives which actually harm patients. Neither the American Cancer Society nor U.S Public Health Services recommend it for regular use.

The patient refused the blood test based on Merenstein’s information, only to later be diagnosed with prostate cancer. He sued Merenstein, and based on his attorney’s case, was awarded $1 million in damages.

As a result of this case, more physicians now recommend that their patients receive a flawed, and often unnecessary or harmful test. This attitude extends to other tests, to the point where internists have reported that as much as 15 percent of lab work and admissions were ordered for “defensive reasons.”

Indeed, the defensive attitude of doctors and controversial economics backing them up, lawmakers have suggested that limiting malpractice damages could be part of the reform our healthcare system so desperately needs.

But this line of reasoning ignores the very reason for the existence of malpractice lawsuits, and the hostile realities faced by the victim of doctor errors. Doctors and other healthcare professionals make mistakes. While we trust these people with our lives – lives which they also routinely improve or even save – doctors can make glaring, negligent errors. Unfortunately, they do so on a regular basis.

The article mentions one 1991 study in which Harvard researchers reviewed the records of tens of thousands of New York patients. From their research, they estimated that around 27,000 of them hard been harmed by medical negligence. Yet only 3,500 of them ever filed claims. The report concluded that providers were rarely held accountable for substandard care.

What’s more, holding doctors accountable for the care they provide improves the standard of care patients receive. The threat of liability lawsuits can and has motivated improvements in the medical industry. Two decades ago, anesthesiologists paid one of the highest premiums for malpractice insurance, in part do to a 1 in 5,000 risk of death during surgery. Today, that risk has dropped to 1 in 250,000, and the anesthesiologists premiums are among the lowest, reflecting the change in the safety of the service they provide.

Capping malpractice damages may cut healthcare costs, but it does not do so by helping patients.

If you have been injured as the result of medical malpractice, contact an experienced Atlanta malpractice attorney as soon as possible. Contact MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule a free consultation.