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So, How Much Do You Know About Medical Malpractice?

Source: The Pop Tort - December 3, 2013

Hey kids, it's December and that means finals! (You remember our last exam, right?) So get out those #2 pencils again. Actually, what year is this? Get out those laptops - and begin:

Medical errors in the U.S. rank where as a cause of death?

a. 50th
b. 25th
c. 10th
d. 3rd

Answer: "d"! According to the report, published in the Journal of Patient Safetyand reported by Pro Public, "between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death, the study says. That would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease, which is the first, and cancer, which is second."

Surgical "never events" are surgical mistakes that never should happen. How often do they actually happen annually in the U.S.?

a. 20 times
b. 100 times
c. 1,000 times
d. More than 2,000 times

You guessed it. The answer is "d" again. But double that and you still won't be correct. There are 4,044 surgical "never events" in the United States each year. More specifically, "[A] surgeon in the United States leaves a foreign object such as a sponge or a towel inside a patient's body after an operation 39 times a week, performs the wrong procedure on a patient 20 times a week and operates on the wrong body site 20 times a week." In other words, an estimated "80,000 of these so-called 'never events' occurred in American hospitals between 1990 and 2010," a number the researchers believe is "likely on the low side."

There is massive underreporting of errors in hospitals because:

a. Hospitals employees do not know what constitutes an error.
b. Hospital employees forget to file paperwork.
c. Hospital employees are afraid they might get fired.
d. Hospital employees fear they might be sued.

The answer, my friends, is "a." According to a January 2012 study, "Hospital employees recognize and report only one out of seven errors, accidents and other events that harm Medicare patients while they are hospitalized." This massive error "underreporting" problem at hospitals is because hospitals employees do not seem to know what patient harm is and if they do, they think it is someone else's job to report it. Specifically, "[T]he problem is that hospital employees do not recognize 'what constitutes patient harm' or do not realize that particular events harmed patients and should be reported.... In some cases ... employees assumed someone else would report the episode, or they thought it was so common that it did not need to be reported, or 'suspected that the events were isolated incidents unlikely to recur.'"

How many medical "mistakes" result in a claim for money?

a. 90 percent
b. 50 percent
c. 25 percent
d. Less than 2 percent

Answer: "d"! That's right, "Only about 1% of adverse events due to medical negligence result in a claim."

How many states have experienced recent drops in malpractice payouts?

a. 10
b. 25
c. All
d. None

Answer: "c"! "[A]ll states have experienced large drops in paid claims per physician and payout per physician."

True or False: When there is a large medical malpractice verdict, a physician's personal assets are at risk.

Answer: False! Big time. Writes David A. Hyman and Charles Silver in their article, Five Myths of Medical Malpractice,

We also learned something that may surprise many readers. When payments above the policy limits were made, whether in tried or in settled cases, they almost always came from insurers. Out-of-pocket payments by physicians were extraordinarily rare, particularly when physicians had policy limits of ≥ $500,000. One might say, with only the slightest exaggeration, that physicians have effectively no personal exposure on malpractice claims (other than the obvious and unavoidable side effects of litigation, eg, the emotional and time-related costs of being deposed). Why do plaintiffs' lawyers not pursue personal assets? Years ago, a qualitative study documented a strong social norm among malpractice lawyers against seeking "blood money" from individual physicians. Our findings buttress that account. The only physicians who should worry about personal exposure are those who grossly underinsure, and even they should not worry too much.

And there are many more surprises in the Center for Justice & Democracy's new Medical Malpractice Briefing Book. Nearly 100 pages of fascinating holiday reading. Enjoy!

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