Medical malpractice lawsuits

I’ve probably mentioned before that I’m particularly sensitive about medical malpractice lawsuits because my sister, my brother-in-law and at least one close friend are physicians. And, as I well know from them and from my own doctors, virtually all doctors at some point get named as defendants in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Yesterday, in the New York Times, Pauline Chen, M.D., wrote “The Cost of Malpractice Claims: The stress of lawsuits dragging on can undermine doctors’ ability to care for patients.” This piece, unlike many about medical malpractice—probably because Chen is a physician—accurately describes what doctors go through when they’re named in such a lawsuit, as I well know: I’ve listened to doctors worry over this depressing consequence of practicing medicine.

Dr. Chen’s article will give you a point of view that you probably have not seen, especially because the media tend to jump upon accusations of bad doctors, the scandalous parts, without fully comprehending what really fuels these lawsuits.

In brief, medical malpractice lawyers name everyone they can when a patient is injured, perhaps only due to accident or even the patient’s negligent care of him or herself. (It’s an unfortunate part of our contemporary culture, especially our legal culture, that if shit happens, it has to be someone’s fault.) They name a hospital and virtually all doctors and medical personnel who stopped by the bedside of the patient, including doctors who really had nothing to do with patient care.

Med mal lawyers cast their nets wide because they’re fishing for deep pockets. And after perhaps years of worry, discovery, and concomitant legal bills—picked up by the doctor’s liability insurance coverage—the claim against the doctor is dropped. (The doctor’s guiltlessness, however, does not prevent the liability insurance company from raising the doctor’s premium.)

Moreover, as hospitals that don’t make the Best Hospitals list point out, many really fine physicians specialize in areas of medicine that carry a high risk. I’ve noted here that my own ob-gyn is no longer an ob; obstetrics is a risky specialty and her liability insurance was raised so high she could no longer open her doors as an obstetrician. Last time I talked to her about it she said, “Well, I’ve stopped crying.”

Medical malpractice lawsuits are driving doctors like mine out of the specialties they have trained for and love.

My idea is that each state should establish a non-profit medical liability fund to provide coverage for every doctor they license to practice. This way the state could keep realistic tabs on all physicians, and review a lawsuit in its nascent form to estimate if a doctor is truly malpracticing, or just being named in a grand sweep.

It’s a messy, sad business, from any point of view.

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