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Ignore The Spin: The Math Shows That Medical Malpractice Cases Are Mostly Well Founded

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It is amazing how different news organizations will report on the same study and spin completely different slants for their readers. A prime example concerns the AP story yesterday reporting about a study published in the May 11, 2006 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, from a panel of physicians, headed by David Studdert, an associate professor of health policy and management at Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston, looking at a group of completed malpractice cases to determine whether an injury had truly occurred, and if so, whether it was due to medical malpractice.

The Houston Chronicle’s headline reads: “Study asserts many medical malpractice suits groundless”

In contrast, the website of a Michigan TV CBS affiliate, WNEM, reports on the same study with the following headline: : “Frivolous’ Claims Make Up Small Share of Malpractice Suits”.

The Harvard School of Public Health’s own press release reads: ” Study Casts Doubt on Claims That the Medical Malpractice System Is Plagued By Frivolous Lawsuits” with the tag line: “System Does a Good Job of Rejecting Claims Without Merit, but Administrative Costs Are Exorbitant.”

The WNEM story quotes the study’s author’s conclusion as follows:

“Some people have suggested that the system is overrun with frivolous litigation. Our findings don’t support that,” said study author David M. Studdert, an associate professor of health policy and management at Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston. “The system is doing a reasonable job of channeling compensation to the right sorts of claims.”

The nature of the study, and the statistics that emerged, are set forth here:

For this study, which appears in the May 11 New England Journal of Medicine, a panel of trained physicians reviewed 1,452 closed malpractice claims from five liability insurers to determine if a medical injury really had occurred and, if so, whether or not it was due to medical error. The physicians focused on the areas of surgery, obstetrics, medication and missed or delayed diagnosis which, together, account for about 80 percent of all malpractice claims filed in the United States. There were no verifiable medical injuries for 3 percent of the claims, and 37 percent did not involve errors. But the majority of claims not associated with errors (72 percent) or injuries (84 percent) did not result in compensation, either. On the other hand, most of the claims that involved injuries due to error (73 percent) did result in compensation. When claims not involving error did receive compensation, it was generally lower than claims that did involve an error ($313,205 vs. $521,560).

Is the system for compensating malpractice victims out of control? Ignore the headlines; look at the data and draw your own conclusions. My conclusion is that the system is not out of control, and that this study, authored by doctors, proves that the insurance industry’s drive for caps to limit the compensation of victims, is without justification. As the press release of the Harvard School of Public Health says itself: “Their findings suggest that portraits of a malpractice system riddled with frivolous lawsuits are overblown.”