Medical malpractice lawsuits often receive substantial media and political attention. While some of the attention is positive, most is negative. In 2013, medical malpractice lawsuits cost the healthcare industry an estimated $3.7 billion. With this much strain on the medical industry, these questions arise: Are medical Malpractice lawsuits really making a difference? Are they necessary? Are they just a way for people to leach money off of big medical organizations?
The negative reputation is understandable. Most of us have probably heard stories about courts awarding multi-million dollar judgements in cases that initially seem to be frivolous. Sadly, a large percentage of medical malpractice lawsuits are without merit and end up being frivolous. These types of cases are usually settled out of court. Frivolous medical malpractice cases are one of the factors that eventually led to tort reform legislation, which started in the 1960's and continues to this day. The media also plays a large role in manufacturing the negative attention because of sensationalized reporting and failure at times to properly present all the facts in a legal case.
In 2009, many U.S. states that had not implemented tort reform yet made an initiative to curb the amounts of frivolous lawsuits. Before this legislation passed, medical malpractice lawsuits were costing the healthcare industry about $35 billion annually. The drop in medical malpractice lawsuit costs were substantial. But, was this legislation the proper approach? Many would say no. This new legislation basically made it harder to obtain a jury trial, made it harder to file a lawsuit, and limited the amount of money the injured party could receive. The result is a system that prevents frivolous lawsuits, but also makes it extremely difficult for those who have endured legitimate damages to receive what they deserve and require to survive.
Unfortunately, medical malpractice is consistently becoming a more common occurrence, and the need for a method that can hold the healthcare industry responsible for their negligence is necessary. Many organizations and healthcare professionals carry out their daily operations with fear of an impending lawsuit. That fear of repercussion for their negligence may be a good thing. While the healthcare industry has the ability to help those in need, they also have the ability to cause life-time catastrophic injuries, and even death. Standards of practice are implemented in healthcare to ensure that patients receive the proper care. If the fear of a lawsuit is what it takes for healthcare to adhere to these standards, then medical malpractice lawsuits are a good thing.
While the tort reform legislation may have good intentions, the original reason for medical malpractice lawsuits must not be forgotten - to compensate those who have suffered from injuries resulting from failures to adhere to medical standards of practice. Let's look at the case of Donathan v. Gordon, filed in 2010 in Tennessee. A woman became paralyzed from the waist down after caregivers improperly implemented an epidural catheter for post-operative pain control. She was awarded $22 million. Some may say that a payout that large is unwarranted. However, consider the extra medical and care expense that she will incur for the rest of her life, and the future earnings that were lost because of her decreased ability to work. Cases like this are the main reason why medical malpractice lawsuits are necessary. What would happen to this woman if she had not won her settlement? She would not only have to endure the effects of medical negligence for the rest of her life, but she would also have to absorb the extra care expenses while having limited work ability. The other purpose for the $22 million award was to punish the facility for their negligence and to prevent this from happening again to someone else. If facilities know that this type of judgment can be placed upon them, they will be forced to make greater strides to prevent medical negligence.
For every legitimate case like Donathan v. Gordon, there are several that are filed with the wrong intentions. This is where tort reform becomes relevant and necessary. The real challenge is creating legislation that allows for legitimate medical malpractice lawsuits to be filed, while preventing others that are frivolous. Legislators must not look at medical malpractice cases from the viewpoint of the doctor or the conglomerate healthcare organization. Instead, they should wear the shoes of those who have truly suffered from the medical negligence. They should target the medical organizations that fail to adhere to fundamental standards of practice, and hold them accountable. The relevant statistic should not be the $3.7 billion in medical malpractice lawsuit costs; it should be the estimated 210,000 to 400,000 people who die every year due to hospital errors.
Because they do not have a medical background, most members of the legal industry are incredibly misinformed when it comes to medical care. This may be the reason that so many medical malpractice cases are considered frivolous. Maybe the attorneys don't know exactly what medical malpractice is. The need is higher than ever for medical professionals who can work with the legal industry to show them exactly when medical negligence is present, and what damages have resulted. There is no better medical professional for this role than the nurse. Nurses are trained extensively on medical standards of practice and work to adhere to them on a daily basis. If you are a nurse and this challenge interests you, then a career as an Advanced Legal Nurse Consultant (ALNC) may be for you.