Medical errors caused by the negligence of a physician account for approximately 100,000 deaths a year. The rate of negligent care for hospitalized individuals is 1 percent or 1 of every 100 hospitalizations. Insurance costs associated with medical malpractice claims amount to 0.05 percent of health care spending.
The myth of the growing rate of medical errors, particularly as it related to malpractice suits, has been used to support tort reform in many states as it relates to medical malpractice. The myth unfortunately may not necessarily support the amount of monetary awards paid to victims and may make medical malpractice insurance more expensive for practitioners. It should be noted that some reports place medical errors as the 5th leading cause of death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the five leading causes of death are (highest to lowest): heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, stroke and accidents.
Occurrence of Medical Errors as a Cause of Death
Medical errors, classified by the CDC as complications of medical and surgical care, resulted in 2,490 deaths in 2010. As a reported cause of death medical errors tank well below the 15th leading cause of death, which is inflammation of the lungs caused by ingesting solids or liquids (Pneumonitis). The number of deaths caused by Pneumonitis in 2010 was 17,011, nearly 7 times higher than the number of deaths caused by medical errors. Individuals age 65 and older have the highest number of deaths due to surgical medical care complications (1,544 or 62 percent).
A comprehensive Harvard University study of medical practices in the 1990s, looking at a sample of 31,000 medical records, found that the rate of injury was 1 in 25 patients. Of that number, about four percent of the patients sued. When the number of errors was disproportionately attributed to anesthesiologists, the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) sought ways to reduce the number of claims. A similar approach was taken by the University of Michigan medical system in 2002, resulting in a 50 percent reduction in errors and malpractice claims.
The Effects of Tort Reforms on Medical Malpractice Insurance
A study examining the impact of state led tort reform efforts showed a reduction in insurance losses attributed to medical errors when caps were placed on compensatory damages. This does not take into account the nature of malpractice insurance premiums. They may rise and fall as a factor of market conditions as opposed to a rise and fall in malpractice claims due to medical errors.
Tort reform is often seen as a red herring used by political parties to advance an idea that the country as a whole is too litigious. The incidents of death that occurs as a result of medical errors are relatively low. Legislation to understand the full scope of medical errors has been introduced during several sessions of Congress. During his time as US Senator from Illinois, President Barack Obama introduced legislation with then Senator Hillary Clinton of New York to study the nature of medical errors and create a database of their findings. Such information would provide physicians and hospital systems with quantitative data necessary to take affirmative approaches like the ASA and University of Michigan medical system did to reduce occurrences.
This article was provided by Sandy Wallace, aspiring lawyer with an interest in social issues. If you or a loved one has been affected by medical malpractice, Sandy recommends seeking legal counsel.