By Terry Baynes
Jan 8 (Reuters) - Physicians on average spend over 10
percent of their careers fighting medical malpractice claims,
according to a new study by researchers at Harvard Medical
School and the RAND Corporation.
The study, reported on Monday in Health Affairs, is part of
a larger project to understand how malpractice claims work and
how to improve their efficiency. While concerns about the U.S.
medical malpractice system often focus on the expense of
litigation, the researchers set out to examine another cost:
Using a database from a large national insurance firm that
wasn't identified, the researchers examined medical malpractice
claims made against over 40,000 physicians. The report's authors
found that the average physician spends over four years, or 10
percent of an assumed 40-year career, facing unresolved
malpractice claims. The bulk of that time was spent on claims
that were later dropped or dismissed, never resulting in
payment, the study found.
The time demands were even greater for doctors in high-risk
fields, such as neurosurgeons, who had to spend an average of 10
years -- or 30 percent of their careers -- with an open
malpractice claim. Psychiatrists spent the least amount of time,
an average of 16 months or 3 percent of their careers, defending
charges of malpractice.
Co-author Anupam Jena, a professor at Harvard Medical School
and physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said efforts to
improve the system should focus not only on capping damage
awards but also on reducing the amount of time required to
resolve malpractice claims.
Even lawsuits that are dismissed before trial can take
around two years to be resolved, he noted. Cases that settle
typically take between two and three years, while cases that go
to a jury can take around five years to reach a verdict.
The authors recommend a shift to an alternative dispute
resolution process similar to the claims management program
adopted by the University of Michigan Health System in 2001.
Under that model, the university proactively looked for medical
errors, disclosed them to patients and used a central review
committee to resolve disputes, offering compensation when at
fault. From 1995 to 2007, the university found a decrease in the
time needed to resolve claims and a reduction in total liability
"The goal of a well-functioning malpractice system should be
to reward patients who suffer malpractice both fairly and
quickly rather than have them wait five years to get a
settlement," Jena said.
The claims data used by the researchers did not indicate if
there was a lawsuit, if the case was tried in court or if there
was a settlement. Although the authors suggest that the system
can be made more efficient, they did not single out plaintiffs'
lawyers or lawsuits as the source of the delays.
Linda Lipsen, the chief executive of the leading trial
lawyers' group, the American Association for Justice, noted that
98,000 Americans are killed every year by preventable medical
errors and countless more face lifelong injuries.
"Policy efforts must put patients first and ensure that
justice is not delayed nor limited," she said in a statement.
Other researchers on the study were economist Seth Seabury
of the RAND Corporation, Amitabh Chandra of the Harvard Kennedy
School of Government and Darius Lakdawalla of the University of
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