Medical Malpractice Crisis in the United States

Deaths by Medical Mistakes On the Raise.

Did you know that deaths from preventable physician and hospital error has reached the level of being the third leading cause of death in the United States, right behind cancer and heart disease? It is a scary scenario, but true that preventable medical errors claim the lives of 400,000 people each year. “Deaths by Medical Mistakes Hit Records,” 7/18/14 So the question is why isn’t this frightening statistic spread across newspaper headlines? This was the question of Sub-committee Chairman on Primary Health and Aging, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in his opening remarks.

Tejal Gandhi, MD, president of the National Patient Safety Foundation andassociate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, spoke at the hearings, says, ” It is a chilling reality – one often over looked in the annual mortality statistics.

Ashish Jha, MD, professor of health policy and management at Harvard School of Public Health, referenced the Institute of Medicine’s 1999 report “To Err is Human,” which estimated that 100,000 Americans died each each from preventable adverse events. He says, “When they first came out with that number, it was so staggeringly large, that most people were wondering, ‘could that possible be right?’ “

Now, 15 years later the number of people dying from preventable medical errors had grown from 100,000 to 400,000 each year. Remember we are measuring preventable medical and hospital errors.

The answer that Sen. Bernie Sanders got as to why this medical error crisis is not spread across the newspapers was: “When people go to the hospital, they are sick. It is very easy to confuse the fact that somebody might have died because of a fatal consequence of their disease, verus they died from a comlication from medical error.” said Ashish Jha, MD.

So What Are The Most Common Medical Errors?

In CoverMD it is reported that medical errors in the United States kill up to 100,000 people every year, while US News & World Health Reports more than 200,000 people die from preventable medical errors and up to 20 times more suffer from errors but don’t die from them. Kiani says. So what are the most common medical errors physician make and how can we protect outselfs from them? CoverMD, in an article, “The Ten Most Common Medical Errors,” by Barry Bialek, MD, a senior CoverMD contributing editor, states that the ten most common medical errors are as follows:

  1. Technical medical errors
  2. Failure to use indicated tests
  3. Avoidable delays in treatment
  4. Failure to take precautions
  5. Failure to act on test results
  6. Inadequate monitoring after surgery
  7. Inadequate patient preparation
  8. Inadequate follow-up after treatement
  9. Avoidable delay in diagnosis
  10. Improper medical dose.

Dr. Bialek states these are the most common types of medical errors that physicans may protect themselves against.

What Are the Statistical Odds of a Successful Medical Malpratice Lawsuit?

Dispite the alarming raise in preventable medical error the success rate for patients is very low. In “Medical Malpractice Statistics” Nolo says that of the plaintiffs who go to trial on a medical malpractice case, that only 27% are successful. The National Center for State Courts did a project study of medical malpractice lawsuits in the state courts. They found that the success rate of a medical malpractice case is actually 23% for plaintiffs who go to trial.

In Medical Malpractice Litigation in State Courts, National Center For State Courts, Vol. 18, No.1, April 2011, the project reported that there has actually been a reduction in filed medical malpractice cases in state courts. Medical Malpractice cases continue to drop as compared to other types of cases filed in state courts. The chart below is from the National Center For State Courts 2005,

Medical Malpractice and Other Personal Injury Trials in State Courts, 2005

Total Trials                                   Medical Malpractice Trials        Other Personal Injury Trial
​Jury Trials                                     2,449                                             12,360
Plaintiff Win Rate                        99%                                               92%
Median Damages Awarded      23%                                                59%
Median Trial Lenght Days         $400,000                                       $19,840
​                                                      5                                                      2

It is easy to see that plaintiffs win far fewer medical malpractice cases than other types of personal injury cases in state courts.  It is also evident that medical malpractice injuries are far more severe than other types of personal injuries. So what accounts for the hugh disparity between the alarming raise in preventable medical and hospital errors and the drop in filed medical malpractice lawsuits? There are numerous reasons that range from tort reform to the difficulty in getting a medical expert in the same field as the defendant to testify in court.

Today, most states, like New Jersey, require that an attorney who files a medical malpractice lawsuit to also file an “Affidavit of Merit,”  by a medical expert from the same medical expertise as the defendant physician. The expert physician must state in an affidavit that he has reviewed the case and that there is merit to the claim. If an attorney fails to obtain and file this ” Affidavit of Merit” in a timely manner — in New Jersey it is with the complaint, or soon thereafter — then the case is dismissed by the court. This has reduced the number of filed medical malpractice Lawsuits.

Other factors that impact the drop in medical malpractice lawsuits include the fact that they are usually expensive to fund. A medical malpractice attorney will have to advance the costs on depositions, expert witnesses and court fees. And, unlike with other types of personal injury lawsuits, there are no quick settlements. Most medical malpractice insurance policies allow the defendant physician to weigh in on the decision to settle a claim against him. However, since settled claims will count against his insurance premimum the physician will not easily agree to settle the case – whereas in other personal injury cases this is not the case.

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