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The Role of Medical Malpractice Litigation in Reforming Patient Care

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In a recent article published by the New York Times ,UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz discussed her recent survey of hospital administrators and medical malpractice litigation’s role in changing patient care standards. The survey asked more than 400 hospital risk management professionals about their response to medical errors. The results indicated that in recent years, hospitals have become increasingly more open with patients: over 80 percent of hospitals in the study have a policy of apologizing to patients when errors occur. The survey went on to find that medical malpractice litigation acts to decrease medical errors by creating a sense of openness and transparency in response to litigation risk. Specifically, hospitals have found that disclosing errors to patients and offering early settlements reduces the costs and frequency of litigation.

The survey went on to find that medical malpractice litigation is a source of valuable information about medical errors. Over 95% of responding hospitals used information gained from lawsuits to improve patient care. The survey also found that lawsuits can reveal previously unknown incidents of medical errors – particularly diagnostic and treatment errors with delayed manifestations that other reporting systems are not designed to collect.

While the number of medical malpractice lawsuits brought is often portrayed as shockingly high, the reality is that, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study, only 1.53% of adverse events caused by medical negligence ultimately lead to malpractice claims. This finding, coupled with Dr. Schwartz’ conclusion that medical malpractice lawsuits do not have the harmful effects on patient safety that they are imagined to have – and, in fact, do some good, suggests that perhaps one problem with our medical malpractice system is not that there are too many lawsuits filed, but too few.

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