Recently I read a study about deaths caused by medical errors. The report brought to mind other studies I’ve read about the effects of “tort reform” on healthcare and I couldn’t help but wonder how these studies fit together.
Dr. Martin Makary, a surgeon and professor at Johns Hopkins University, released a report discussing the leading causes of death in the United States. For many years, the number one cause of death in our country has been heart disease, followed by cancer.
Dr. Makary analyzed death rate data over an eight year period and determined that the number three leading cause of death in America is now medical error! Over 250,000 deaths in the United States result from medical error. This passes respiratory disease, the longtime number three cause of death (approximately 150,000 deaths per year).
This startling report must be considered in the context of the so-called tort reform movement that severely tipped the scales of justice against patients who are victims of these medical mistakes. “Medical error” is such a sterile term that it is easy to forget that each “error” is actually a person who has either died or been severely injured by the medical mistake.
We all remember the flood of reports and anecdotes about doctors being forced to practice defensive medicine and order useless tests because of medical malpractice lawsuits. We also recall health insurance companies claiming that premiums were rising because of the crush of medical malpractice lawsuits. Now that years have passed since the insurance industry succeeded in getting medical malpractice tort reform laws passed, the studies are now proving that tort reform was not the medicine needed to improve medical care.
Harsh caps on non-economic damages and statutory immunity given to physicians in certain situations combined with the high cost of litigating medical malpractice cases have reduced the filings of medical malpractice cases, up to 80% in many states. We all know that health insurance rates have not gone down and studies have proven that the number of unnecessary tests has not decreased. It seems those tests are done to enjoy the income that performing them provides.
While physicians’ medical malpractice insurance rates have not gone down significantly, medical malpractice companies’ profits have gone up markedly.
So we come back to our country’s new third highest cause of death, medical errors. One conclusion that can be reached is that medical malpractice lawsuits, as a consequence of careless medical practice, are, in fact, a deterrent to medical errors. When a false solution is sold to the public to solve an artificial crisis, there can be unfortunate unintended consequences.