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Malpractice Suits as Industry Reform

August 13, 2014

Although this blog spends a lot of time detailing medical malpractice cases and the jury awards or settlements that come with them. Forbes contributor Steve Cohen reminded us recently (and accurately) that “Malpractice Lawsuits Aren’t Just About Money.” Besides writing about compensation, many of the articles we have published here recently have explained that while making victims whole is a major part of bringing a suit, in a broader way these cases aim to send a message to lazy, poorly run, or inadequately regulated industries and practices.

Cohen’s article recounts the story of his college friend turned Washington, D.C. “top doctor” Karen and her efforts to sue another doctor in Florida who prescribed her mother the wrong medication. Though “board-certified in three specialties,” Karen is “not licensed to practice in Florida,” so she had to conduct a few phone conversations with local doctors. After speaking with her mother and determining that her medication was making her worse and not better, Karen called her mom’s doctor on a weekend only to be told, “I need a vacation, too.”

After straightening out her mother’s health care plan with another doctor, Karen called Cohen saying she wanted to sue the doctor for malpractice. Her goal in this case was not to recover a huge sum, but instead to send a message, to improve a damaged system to “send a strong-enough message” to doctors that such a lack of professionalism will not go unpunished. As Cohen claims, “The negative publicity that often accompanies high-profile malpractice suits can have a galvanizing effect on prodding reform.”

The author also points out that lawsuits have an effect where formal complaints do not. He cites the failure of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) to adopt “a series of 21 changes tested and implemented by New York Presbyterian Hospital between 2002 and 2009.” These changes, over the course of seven years, reduced the occurrence of “sentinel events” (deliveries that may cause death or serious injury) from 1 per 1000 to zero. In financial terms, the hospital went from paying out $50 million in 2003 to $250,000 in 2009. Despite such obvious results, the ACOG insists it will not formally recommend these changes because they “may infringe on individual doctor or hospital prerogatives.”

But not all professional societies are as resistant to change. Cohen also indicates that after a series of high-profile malpractice verdicts, the American Society of Anesthesiologists overhauled their procedures, which led to a drop from 1 fatality in 6,000 anesthetic administrations to 1 in 200,000.

Though monetary awards are the only way our civil justice system has to make victims whole, Cohen’s article is a great reminder of the power of the same system to increase oversight and to make patients and their families safer.

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