Want to Reduce Malpractice Lawsuits? Focus on Patient Care, Study Suggests

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Initiatives to improve the quality of medical care are just as successful in reducing medical malpractice lawsuits as tort reform is, according to a new study.

That’s a particularly relevant finding, as many states are considering the latter measure, which puts limits on how much money patients can recover in malpractice suits.

“No other study in the literature has quantified the relationships between tort reform, quality improvements and liability claims in health care,” the researchers explained in their paper.

The team used a data set that included Medicare performance scores for two hospital systems, one in Texas and one in Louisiana. They also tracked the malpractice lawsuits that were filed over the same period of time (2000-2006).

They found that after Texas instituted a cap on damages in 2003, lawsuits against that hospital system dropped significantly (from more than seven claims per month, on average, to between one and two). Proponents of such caps say they reduce the appeal of frivolous lawsuits.

The hospital began scoring increasingly better on Medicare quality assessments, which are designed to prevent complications and reduce readmissions.
The hospital began scoring increasingly better on Medicare quality assessments, which are designed to prevent complications and reduce readmissions.

But the new analysis found that in the same period, the number of claims dropped by a similar amount in the Louisiana hospital. There’s no cap on damages in Louisiana. So what changed? The hospital began scoring increasingly better on Medicare quality assessments, which are designed to prevent complications and reduce readmissions.

The team said that they couldn’t say for sure which approach would be more effective across the board in reducing medical liability. Currently, malpractice liability accounts for between 2% and 3% of total U.S. health costs. About 15% of all personal injury lawsuits in the country are related to malpractice, but patients are only successful 28% of the time — and lawyers collect 60% of the compensation that is awarded, the researchers note.

But one of the paper’s authors, Khaled J. Saleh, said that there is the potential for this to be a win-win solution. “Clearly, the evidence shows that if you do high quality care, it is well received by patients and decreases your medico-legal costs,” he told industry website Health Leaders Media June 10.

The full study has been published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Medical Quality under the title “The Impact of Tort Reform and Quality Improvements on Medical Liability Claims: A Tale of 2 States.”

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