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Malpractice Suits Never Feel Trivial

Today’s Associated Press news offered an interesting study from Harvard that found 40% of all medical malpractice cases filed were groundless. There was no evidence of medical error or no evidence of patient injury. What I found puzzling was the response of the researchers.

The vast majority of those dubious cases were dismissed with no payout to the patient. However, groundless lawsuits still accounted for 15 percent of the money paid out in settlements or verdicts.

The study's lead researcher, David Studdert of the Harvard School of Public Health, said the findings challenge the view among tort reform supporters that the legal system is riddled with frivolous claims that lead to exorbitant payouts.

I am just having a hard time understanding why Mr. Studdert thinks this is evidence those supporting tort reform are in error. Even if a groundless lawsuit does not generate a payout for the patient, it does generate substantial legal fees for the physician, insurance company, hospital, pharmacist, etc. The patient spends half of any award on legal fees. The only ones benefiting from our current system are the attorneys for both sides.

I know we always look at the patient as the victim of this issue. However, I can tell you from personal experience, being named in a lawsuit is a gut wrenching experience for a doctor especially when the claim is groundless. Many years ago, I was one of a whole list of physicians named in a frivilous lawsuit that was eventually dismissed. I knew I had done everything correctly for this patient. The whole ordeal of waiting to be deposed and wondering what this was going to do to my career was extremely stressful. I also felt a strong sense of betrayal. I had established a caring relationship with this patient and had given her the best medical care I could. I knew the suit was being pushed by someone other than the patient, but I still felt betrayed. In the end, I was never deposed. Once the lawyers took the patient’s deposition, the whole case fell apart and went away. It took five years for that to happen. In the meantime, it was a horrible cloud hanging over my medical career. Actually it never went completely away. Because I had been named in a suit, my career had a black mark. Every time I applied for a state license or for hospital privileges or to be a provider on an insurance plan, I had to explain that lawsuit. That experience forever changed the way I viewed the doctor patient relationship.

I know I am not alone in my reaction. I spoke with an attorney friend who specializes in malpractice defense. She commented on how emotionally traumatic it is for many doctors to be named in a lawsuit. She remembers going into one doctor’s home and seeing sticky notes pasted on the bathroom mirror saying, “I am a good doctor. I am a competent doctor. They are not after me. They just want money.” It is very difficult to treat the lawsuit as just part of the business. It feels very personal. I am glad that the vast majority of the groundless lawsuits don’t result in monetary settlement or award payouts. However, don’t ever think the filing of a lawsuit is without consequences. Someone always pays.


Tony said…
And sometimes the community pays. Within the last 5 years we lost 3 doctors who were OB/Gyns who decided, for insurance reasons, to give up their OB practices.
Anonymous said…
If you knew then, what you know now, would you go into medicine?
Catholic Mom said…
The answer is a big, "I don't know". I know that I touched lives in a very special way as a physician. It was a great privilege to be an instrument of God's healing power. However, the industry of medicine today extracts a very high cost from individuals, both patients and providers. I am not sure it is still a career that is worth that cost.

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