The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Malpractice ‘Crisisâ€TM Distorted for Profit, New Analysis Suggests

Handful of docs behind most medical-error payouts

by Catherine Komp

Jan. 12, 2007 – A new report suggests the Bush administration, the medical industry and business lobbyists have distorted and exploited the medical-malpractice "crisis" in the name of profit.

In an analysis released Wednesday by Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy group says the real crisis is the lack of accountability for doctors who commit avoidable medical errors.

Public Citizen researchers analyzed fifteen years of data from the federal National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), which includes information on malpractice payouts made by doctors and disciplinary action against them. The Data Bank has known limitations, but Public Citizen says it is the best-available source on the subject.

The analysis found that the number of easily preventable medical errors, including operating on the incorrect body part or leaving a foreign object inside a patient’s body, jumped 40 percent between 2003 and 2005. The latter count – 705 cases – was the highest rate in eleven years.

The majority of malpractice payouts are also made by repeat offenders, according to Public Citizen’s analysis. About 6 percent of doctors were responsible for more than half of all malpractice payouts made between 1991 and 2005. The report noted that the overwhelming majority – 85 percent – of doctors have not been behind a single malpractice payout since the Data Bank was created.

The analysis of the Data Bank found that two-thirds of doctors responsible for ten or more malpractice payouts were not disciplined at all by their state boards of medicine.

While removing problematic practitioners from the field through license suspension or revocation could reduce the rate of medical liability, Public Citizen says doctors are infrequently disciplined beyond the monetary payment. The analysis of the Data Bank found that two-thirds of doctors responsible for ten or more malpractice payouts were not disciplined at all by their state boards of medicine.

The report also sought to dispel the myth that frivolous medical-malpractice lawsuits are driving doctors out of business. Public Citizen said data shows payouts generally fit the severity of the injury, with about 64 percent going to compensate for death or significant injuries, and less that 2 percent going to payouts in the Data Bank’s categories for "insignificant" or "emotional" injuries.

The report’s authors blasted attempts to bring down insurance costs through "tort reform" or efforts to cap monetary damages and limit patients’ ability to seek redress for medical negligence in the court system.

"Fundamentally, an agenda that blames injured patients and seeks to close access to the courts," wrote the report’s authors, "is about protecting business profits over patient health. It is far past time for real healthcare reform, and for a healthcare system that puts patient safety first."

As previously reported by The NewStandard, various studies have shown there is little connection between the cost of paying medical-malpractice victims and rates insurers charge doctors for coverage.

"Fundamentally, an agenda that blames injured patients and seeks to close access to the courts is about protecting business profits over patient health."

The American Medical Association (AMA), which supports restrictions on medical liability claims, took issue with Public Citizen’s report and the use of the National Practitioner Data Bank as a credible source of information. In a statement sent to TNS, the AMA cited a government report from 2000 that found the federal Data Bank to have incomplete information about medical malpractice payouts.

That study, by the Government Accountability Office, also found that 11 percent of some 252 state licensing actions contained "inaccurate or misleading information on the severity or number of times practitioners had been disciplined." These errors included discrepancies between reported and actual consequences to doctors, potential duplication of reports and suspected "underreporting" of malpractice payouts.

Responding to the AMA’s statement, Seth Oldmixon, legislative assistant with Public Citizen, told TNS that any data set is going to have some limitations. "That doesn’t dispute the fact that this is the best data set available to the public to be able to analyze these sorts of issues," said Oldmixon. "Of course, we would like the NPDB to be as comprehensive as possible, but the critique posited by the AMA is a red herring meant to distract from the real problem, which continues to be a lack of serious improvements to patient safety and doctor oversight."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

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