How About Stopping Medical Malpractice?

Recent commentary in the local papers has contained several worthwhile suggestions to reduce health care costs. But some have also included the customary bash at medical malpractice victims and their lawyers, and claim the way to reduce health care costs is to put a cap on the damages injured victims can recover.

According to the Institute of Medicine, 98,000 people are killed annually by preventable medical errors. (1) In sheer numbers, if it were listed as its own category for causes of death, it would be the sixth largest cause of death in the United States. More people die in a given year as a result of medical errors than from motor vehicle accidents (43,458), breast cancer (42,297), or AIDS (16,516). (2)

That’s just deaths; it doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands more who are just permanently maimed, disabled or disfigured by preventable medical mistakes. The nature of that problem was recently illustrated by the November 1, 2009, report that the largest hospital in Rhode Island has been fined for doctors repeatedly performing surgeries on the wrong parts of patients’ bodies. (3) And of the many people injured by medical errors, studies have shown that only about 1.5 % file malpractice claims. (4)

During the recent health care reform debates, when Congressman Bruce Braley of Iowa complained that he had not heard one word in the debate about patient safety, he was heckled so that the presiding officer in the House of Representatives had to temporarily suspend Congressman Braley’s remarks to restore order. Congressman Braley went on to point out that the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine estimated the cost of medical errors was $17 to 28 billion dollars each year. (5)

Reducing medical malpractice will save us all far more money than depriving victims of just compensation in the rare instance of medical negligence resulting in a claim.

(1) See Report entitled “To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System (2000)” Institute of Medicine (IOM), at p. 27, available at

(2) Id., at p. 26.

(3) See AP news report at$150,000+in+wrong-site+surgery-a01612045784 .

(4) This estimate is reported in the “Harvard Medical Practice Study II” (Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA, as published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Feb. 7, 1991; 324(6):377-84

(5) See the actual incident live on