Unresolved Medical Liability Claims Equal Reduced Access to Care

According to an April 2013 Health Affairs study, an average physician spends nearly 11 percent of their career with an unresolved medical liability claim. It’s not surprising that the study also found that specialty type plays a major factor in the length of time a claim remains unresolved.

And yes, you guessed it, due to the complexity of the specialty, neurosurgery wins the booby prize, as roughly 30 percent of a neurosurgeon’s career is spent with an open malpractice claim — the longest of the specialties evaluated in the study. Additionally, on average (for all physicians), from the time of the incident that sparked a malpractice claim, to its resolution, claims take about 43 months to resolve. And if this wasn’t bad enough, physicians spent more than 70 percent of their time dealing with claims that didn’t end with any payment.

So what does all this mean?

To answer this question, we refer you to a great piece published in the New York Times by Pauline Chen, MD, who raised the point, “doctors may in fact be underestimating the extent to which malpractice not only consumes their time but also undermines their ability to care for patients.” What Dr. Chen was hinting at wasn’t whether physicians have the ability to care for their patients; rather that the drawn out process for resolving medical liability claims absorbs their time, thus hurting patients’ access to care and the doctor-patient relationship.

The authors of the of the Health Affairs study argue that shortening the time frame for resolving claims is an important element of medical liability reform. We couldn’t agree more with this assessment, and with the concerns raised by Dr. Chen. At a time when the country already faces a severe physician manpower shortage, the last thing we need to add to the mix are frivolous lawsuits that take physicians away from providing patient care.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that implementing comprehensive medical liability reforms, including limits on non-economic damages, would reduce the federal budget deficit by $62.4 billion over 10 years. As such, we should be investigating ways to reform our costly, inefficient, and unfair liability system to save American taxpayers billions of dollars and protect patient access to care.

At the very least, we should follow the maxim to “first do no harm” and not make the medical-legal situation any worse. To that end, neurosurgery applauds the introduction of H.R. 1473, the Standard of Care Protection Act. This bipartisan bill is sponsored by Reps. Phil Gingrey, MD (R-GA) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX), and will ensure that no provisions of federal health care law — such as Medicare’s quality reporting requirements — may be inappropriately used to create new threats for medical liability litigation in the United States.

Patients who are truly injured by medical negligence deserve swift and fair compensation for their injuries. The current system for resolving these disputes fails on every level, and America’s neurosurgeons urge Congress to address these shortcomings by passing meaningful medical liability reform legislation now!

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