When a 36-year-old Colorado man showed up at a Memorial Health System hospital complaining of severe neck pain and numbness in his arms and shoulders, doctors there diagnosed his condition as a simple neck strain and sent him home. In reality, the man was suffering from a herniated disk that compressed his spinal cord, resulting in severe neurologic injury. Within a matter of hours, the man was paralyzed. After a trial, the jury determined that this man had in fact been the victim of medical malpractice, earning him a $15 million verdict.
While medical malpractice cases like this make the headlines, a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrates that the actual number of medical malpractice payments in the nation has dropped significantly over the course of the last ten years. Using data from Colorado, California, and New York, among other states, the study demonstrated a decrease in the rate of payments since 2007 from 18.6 claims per 1,000 physicians to less than 10 paid claims per 1,000 physicians in 2013.
The aforementioned report suggests that nontraditional malpractice reforms such as communication-and-resolution programs and pre-suit apology laws have impacted the decline in malpractice payments. To that end, University of Texas professor Dr. William Sage suggested that accelerated “recognition of errors and the resolution of disputes are likely to further both monetary and nonmonetary goals of malpractice reform.”
Has healthcare improved?
While optimism among medical professionals about decreases in payments is to be expected, it remains to be seen whether the quality of healthcare has actually improved or the severity of medical mistakes has been reduced. Celebrating the medical profession’s ingenuity in talking its way out of compensating victims of medical malpractice seems like a Pyrrhic victory for the scores of patients injured due to medical malpractice each year.
Despite ramping up efforts to encourage physician apologies and acknowledgment of mistakes, injured patients have rights and deserve to be compensated when medical care worsens their condition or leaves them with new ailments. Without the assistance of caring legal advocates, victims of medical malpractice can be left out in the cold.