Doctors, Patients, & Lawsuits

I guess you could say that my dad was fortunate when it came to malpractice lawsuits during his long medical career. He only had one during his 50 years of practiceâ€"but then again today's times are different.

56%—Percentage of physicians who report involvement with a serious medical error.(Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality)

I guess you could say that my dad was fortunate when it came to malpractice lawsuits during his long medical career. He only had one during his 50 years of practice—but then again today’s times are different.

In the mid-1970s, dad missed a diagnosis and a woman, with a husband and three young children, died of a rare cardiac ailment. Rather than go to court (can you imagine that scene?), dad’s insurance firm lawyers recommended that he settle, which he did, for about $700,000 (that’s about $3 million in today’s dollars).

“In my half-century of patient care I never saw a case like that before or after and my physician colleagues at the time and all through the years said they never did, either,” dad told me years later. “Still, that doesn’t matter. I was responsible.”

It’s no news to current practicing physicians that the nation’s malpractice tort system is deeply flawed, with sky-high insurance premiums and highly publicized mega-dollar awards to plaintiffs, which encourage the practice of more costly defensive medicine. But according to a paper issued by the National Center for Policy Analysis, the system’s defects are felt on the plaintiff side, too.

Despite an explosion in malpractice litigation that sees 25% of the nation’s doctors sued every year, fewer than 2% of those who are injured through medical negligence ever file a malpractice claim and just over one-fourth of those ever see compensation; much of that is eaten up by lawyers’ fees and expenses.

The paper suggests that efforts at reform, such as capping malpractice awards, are not the final answer and instead recommends a system involving contracts between patients, providers, and insurance companies, which could eliminate the need for expensive litigation in all but the most severe cases.

That may well be what’s needed in today’s troubled healthcare environment, but I still think it’s the doctor-patent relationship that counts most. I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me through years and told me “your father saved my life.” One time from a family friend, who claimed dad performed some medical miracle when she a new born baby.

Now I know my internist dad was good but he still couldn’t have found the neonatal unit with a road map. Nevertheless, he was able to communicate (and this guy was no great communicator) that he cared to her parents and later to her. That was enough then and I still believe it can be today.

I'd like to hear your comments, doctors.

“Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge.”—Benjamin Franklin