The True Cost of Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

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More than 17,000 malpractice lawsuits are filed in the United States each year. According to the Medical Scribe Journal, the average U.S. doctor can expect to have a lawsuit filed against them once every seven years. Unfortunately, the price practitioners pay can cause more than just financial harm. Their reputation and emotional health may be affected as well.

To learn more, refer to the infographic below created by the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University’s Online Master’s in Health Law and Policy program.

Infographic on The True Cost of Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

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What Is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice happens when a mistake is made that injures a patient. Whether the mistake is due to carelessness or forgetfulness, it can be considered malpractice if it harms the patient.


Malpractice must satisfy three conditions before being proven. The mistake must fail to meet accepted medical standards of care. The mistake must cause injury to occur that would not have happened without being made by the practitioner. And the mistake must result in substantial damages that are worth pursuing litigation for.


Making a mistake during surgery, ignoring lab results, reading tests incorrectly, giving incorrect instructions, neglecting to provide follow-up care or discharging a patient too early can all lead to a malpractice lawsuit.


The History of Medical Malpractice

In Roman times, medical practitioners were expected to follow certain standard of care. By the 1200s, laws concerning medical malpractice were enacted throughout Europe.


In the 1800s, medical malpractice lawsuits reached the United States. However, malpractice suits became much more common following the 1960s.


Which Medical Professionals Have the Highest Likelihood of Being Sued?

The National Practitioner Data Bank found that nurses had the highest likelihood of being sued for medical malpractice, with 16,094 nurses being served malpractice lawsuits in 2016. However, only 287 nurses paid a financial penalty, while 13,016 faced other repercussions.

Approximately 14,000 doctors were served medical malpractice lawsuits in 2016, with 7,464 paying a financial penalty and 4,676 facing other repercussions. Among other medical professionals sued for malpractice in 2016, 2,860 were dentists, 1,758 were pharmacists, 884 were chiropractors and 347 were psychologists.


What Happens During a Malpractice Lawsuit?

Only 3 percent of malpractice lawsuits go to trial, with most settling before court. Despite this, cases can still have a major impact on time, money and emotional health.

Malpractice suits go through a three-step process. First, practitioners receive a legal complaint outlining the details of their mistake, which starts the discovery and negotiations process. The goal of this step is to come to an agreement before the case goes to trial. Next, medical files, health billing information, clinical notes and other documents are shared. After this happens, the patient or the person suing for them and the practitioner must give depositions under oath.


Why Do Patients Sue?

According to Becker’s Hospital Review, errors in diagnosis cause the highest percentage of medical malpractice lawsuits, with 33 percent of lawsuits stemming from diagnosis errors. Surgery errors, treatment errors and obstetrics errors are also commonly cited reasons for filing a lawsuit, covering 24 percent, 18 percent and 11 percent of malpractice lawsuits, respectively.

In most cases, if a medical practitioner is served with a lawsuit, then the alleged errors had a severely negative impact on the patient, with 31 percent of malpractice lawsuits being filed due to errors resulting in death, 19 percent being filed due to errors resulting in significant permanent injury and 18 percent being filed due to errors resulting in major permanent injury.


Reducing the Risk of a Lawsuit

The Modern Medicine Network offers guidance for helping practitioners prevent lawsuits, such as the following:

Making an effort to communicate with the patient is key. By slowing down and listening to the patient’s concerns, the practitioner can avoid making assumptions.

Getting consent from the patient is also important. Practitioners should take time to make sure that the patient understands the benefits and risks of a procedure before proceeding.

Providing follow-up care to the patient by asking how the appointment went and keeping them informed about test results and referrals can help ensure that all variables are accounted for.


Does the Current Malpractice System Help or Hinder Care?

The current malpractice system is controversial for numerous reasons. It is expensive, slow and often pays the wrong patient. According to the 1990 Harvard Medical Practice Study, only one out of 15 injured patients received a payment. And among those who received payment for an injury, five in six showed no sign of negligence.

However, broader changes are being advocated that may be able to fix issues in the current system, including these alternatives:

Implementing a binding alternative dispute resolution allows malpractice allegations to be sent to a third party instead of a courtroom, which can lower costs and hasten the process. Enterprise liability encourages hospitals to cover some responsibility for malpractice insurance, incentivizing them to monitor practitioners’ work more closely. And establishing a guideline system allows practitioners who are compliant with guidelines to be presumed non-negligent.

With billions of dollars being paid out annually in response to malpractice lawsuits, there is no sure way for a health care practitioner to avoid being sued. Experts are struggling to determine how to incentivize practitioners to provide care that is appropriate while not being excessively cautious. Until this happens, health care workers should make efforts to reduce their risk.