howard janet

Malpractice Lawsuits Shed Light on Ailing Outpatient System

by Howard Janet on June 20, 2011

If doctors and hospitals could start treating medical malpractice lawsuits as a symptom, rather than a cause, of our ailing health care system, we’d all be safer.

Patient safety advocates have long argued that medical malpractice lawsuits are one of the few ways we have in the U.S. to hold health care practitioners accountable.  Even though a fraction of the people seriously injured or the families of someone killed by a medical error ever file a lawsuit – and still fewer are awarded damages – just the threat of being held accountable has led to substantial research and new safety protocols in hospitals.

Malpractice lawsuits tell the healthcare industry what kind of errors are occurring, many times why they occurred, and who is committing the errors. Malpractice lawsuits also are one of the few sources of objective data about serious errors that are happening  outside the hospital setting.

A study published in the June 15 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, illustrates this point. The study revealed that while patient safety efforts have focused on inpatient hospital settings for more than a decade, medical errors are even more likely to happen in a doctor’s office or outpatient clinic or center.

Researchers from Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York made this discovery by analyzing the National Practitioners Database, which compiles medical malpractice damage awards. Between 2005 and 2009, they discovered slightly more damage awards were related to outpatient services than in-patient hospital care.

The study also showed:

  • Major injury or death accounted for almost two-thirds of paid claims for events in the outpatient settings
  • Inpatient claims tended to be related to surgery errors
  • Outpatient claims tended to be related to diagnosing failures
  • Damage awards for inpatient claims averaged $362,965, compared with $290,111 for outpatients.

Ever since the National Institute of Medicine’s groundbreaking 1999 report, “To Err is Human,” found up to 98,000 hospital patients die from preventable medical errors in the U.S. each year, government and private sector efforts have focused on inpatient safety.

The recent Cornell study hopefully will focus similar attention on how to prevent medical errors in offices, outpatient clinics and surgery centers. The researchers themselves concluded, “The high volume of outpatient malpractice claims and the serious nature of many of these claims suggest that the relative neglect of outpatient safety should not persist.”

Medical malpractice lawsuits are a symptom of medical mistakes. They are also a much needed measurement of accountability for the thousands of patients killed and injured every day from medical error. Just as doctors use symptoms to get to an illnesses’ source,   health care practitioners and researchers can use medical malpractice lawsuits to help ferret out the causes of preventable medical injury and help keep all of us safer.

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