How Effective Is Medical Malpractice Reform?

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Proponents of medical malpractice reform, which seeks to place stricter limits on medical malpractice claims, may argue that medical costs are higher than they should be because doctors, scared by the potential for medical malpractice claims, frequently order unnecessary and overly expensive tests and other types of medical care in order to protect themselves from such claims. This is known as “defensive medicine”, the practice of which many believe plays a substantial role in driving up health care costs.


A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, however, puts this argument into question. Researchers examined Medicare claims in three states – Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia – which had enacted legislation over the past ten years (Texas in 2003 and South Carolina and Georgia in 2005) to make it more difficult for patients to sue their physicians for malpractice, and compared the care in these states, both before and after the new laws were enacted, to the care in neighboring states which did not have such laws.


The legislation enacted in each of the three states changed the malpractice standard for emergency care from the traditional negligence standard to one of gross negligence. Basically, a gross negligence standard means that physicians can only be found liable if they knew the care they were providing was not the proper care, and continued to provide such care despite this knowledge. Patients bringing medical malpractice claims must prove gross negligence before the claim has any chance of succeeding. Such proof is often a very difficult task, and the effect of such laws is to dissuade many people from pursuing medical malpractice claims.


The study looked specifically at imaging studies ordered by ER doctors, the rate of hospital admissions following ER visits and the per-visit ER charges. It found that there was no reduction in the number of imaging studies ordered or the hospital admission rates in each of the three states, and no change in per-visit ER charges in either Texas or South Carolina, while Georgia saw a slight reduction in per visit ER charges.


While physicians often say they order unnecessary tests out of fear of being sued, these findings suggest that medical malpractice reform laws which make it more difficult for patients to sue doctors have little effect on how emergency room physicians practice.


If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of a medical misdiagnosis and are seeking a qualified medical malpractice attorney, contact Los Angeles doctor-turned-lawyer Bradley I. Kramer for a free consultation today.

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