Employed as a deterrent against sub-standard care, the medical malpractice system in the U.S. does little to ensure patients receive the level of care they are due. Based on a recent study, patient safety researchers with Johns Hopkins Medicine estimate that medical mistakes cause approximately 250,000 deaths each year, which would make doctor errors the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Focusing so much attention on avoiding potential litigious situations, physicians may practice defensive medicine, not quality medicine.
The Current Medical Liability System
Presently, the medical liability system in the U.S. relies largely on self-reporting by physicians and litigation brought by injured patients. The goal of the current liability system for medical error claims in the U.S. is to compensate patients for injuries caused by medical negligence and to prevent health care providers from practicing negligently or recklessly. However, there are no set standards to judge the standard of care that patients receive.
The Effect of Liability Rules on Quality of Care
A study recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the medical liability system currently in place does very little to curb provider errors and encourage quality services. Based on the study’s findings, about 2% of physicians are responsible for approximately 38.9% of all medical malpractice claims. Without sanctions or over-arching disciplinary actions, some physicians with poor malpractice liability records relocate or change practice specialties to shed their negligence claims and achieve fresh starts.
Proposed System Reforms
Researchers suggest a three-prong approach for refocusing quality of care and restoring trust in physician-patient relationships. The proposed reforms include making errors a learning opportunity, building doctor support systems, and adjusting malpractice systems to line up more with patient safety goals.
Reporting medical errors is helpful in identifying situations that result in patient harm and learning how to avoid them. Medical mistakes resulting in serious injuries or death for patients often come with feelings of guilt and shame for the at-fault physicians. Some experts suggest that having systems in place to support physicians in such circumstances and acknowledge their emotional reactions may help encourage the reporting of errors, helping to prevent such mistakes in the future. Experts recommend moving toward a liability system that has established care guidelines and holds medical facilities, instead of individual providers, liable for lapses in care quality.