Medical malpractice suits are becoming more common in America, as the personal bond between doctor and patient becomes a thing of the past. Serious new problem has burst upon the US medical scene: malpractice insurance.
Some firms which insure doctors and hospitals against suits for malpractice of negligence now threaten to stop providing this insurance. They say they have been losing money as more suits are instituted and jury awards grow.
Doctors say they do not dare practice without malpractice insurance. Some threaten to stop practice if insurance no longer is available, an action which would seriously threaten the health care of many Americans.
State regulating agencies have taken steps to prevent an immediate cut-off of this vital insurance. But the long-term problem remains, and many meetings are under way in an effort to come to grips with it.
In the final analysis it is the patient, as usual who will pay for rising malpractice-insurance costs. Doctors and hospitals will pass along their higher costs in the form of higher bills to patient.
The whole malpractice issue has been building for years.
Decades ago, there was no malpractice problem. Americans put full faith in their doctors, who were general practitioners. Often a close, almost family, relationship was established. Their doctors, most Americans thought, could do no wrong.
But times have changed. Medical care now is fragmented – many Americans have not one but several doctors, each with his own specialty. Often there is little personal relationship between anxious patient and rushed doctors.
Americans are losing their old awe of medical men. They realize that doctors, for all their fine work, occasionally make mistakes even as the rest of us do – thus suits against them are on the rise.
So are the size of jury malpractice awards in such cases. In 1965 the average jury award was the equivalent of $47,000. Today it is over $1 million; the average jury award is increasing year by year.
Statistics from medical malpractice lawsuits at insurance.wa.gov
Many large insurance companies saying they are incurring heavy losses have announced plans to stop writing malpractice insurance in some areas. Doctors in parts of several States now face possible loss of their malpractice insurance. As a result, several steps are being taken to deal with the problem.
One of the questions which needs probing is how much money, if any, insurance firms really are losing.
Doctors often view the suits as efforts by unscrupulous patients, or their unscrupulous lawyers, to make a quick bundle of cash at the expense of insurance companies without real medical justification. Clearly that frequently occurs.
Many put much blame on lawyers, holding that in order to make money for themselves they convince clients to file suit on the assumption that insurance companies will settle the case out of court for a modest sum rather than risk losing more in a drawn-out court fight.
But part of the problem is that a tiny minority of doctors and dentists do commit mistakes occasionally, and a very few of these doctors and dentists are simply incompetent.
Let’s look at a few examples:
After a fall, a young boy was sent home from a hospital emergency room as all right; his skull fracture was not discovered. He developed a brain clot, and permanent paralysis.
During tooth-straightening efforts an orthodontist permitted a teenage – boy’s teeth to grow so far out of his gums that his front teeth threatened to fall out. All must be reimplanted by expensive dental surgery, in effect by breaking the jaws, which then will be wired together for weeks. He will be unable to eat normally for three months.
When asked by a woman in her late 30’s for pills to dull the pain of the first day of her menstrual period, a gynecologist instead recommended a hysterectomy. He said he had developed a new method for removing the uterus through the vagina, thus there would be no external abdominal scar.
Horrified, she refused, but he kept bringing up the subject during subsequent visits. She finally decided in her own mind why he was pressuring her: he also was a medical school professor, who perhaps wished the opportunity to teach his new technique to students.
The need is to enable patients such as these to be provided compensation when they have been wronged by negligent or incompetent doctors or dentists. At the same time, the overwhelming percentage of able and dedicated physicians and hospitals must be protected against nuisance claims of unscrupulous patients and lawyers’ and at a cost which they and their patients can afford.
How to achieve both ends will, it is hoped, come from the examinations of the problem that now are under way.