Pennsylvania reforms unearth malpractice data
An interesting by-product of Pennsylvania's effort to bring down health care costs was the development of data documenting the added cost of medical malpractice. Although the study was not designed to identify or measure the cost of malpractice, it did identify several areas of substantial added cost that contributed to significant health care expense. For example, it documented 19,154 cases of hospital-acquired infections in 2005, generating nearly 400,000 additional patient days at a total cost of more than 3.5 billion dollars.
Of course, some nosocomial or hospital infections are unavoidable, particularly in tertiary care centers. We have gathered many ill people under the same roof and some have particularly contagious illnesses or greatly reduced defense mechanisms. Nevertheless, the number of hospital infections can be controlled, and Pennsylvania has already significantly reduced infection rates at several Pittsburgh hospitals through the adoption of basic hygiene practices as simple as hand-washing more frequently.
The study also identified nearly 200 additional hospital medical errors that stood out during a 30-month period, many of which were classified as "wrong-site surgeries". Unfortunately, the terms "medical malpractice", "frivolous lawsuits" and "trial lawyers" have been deliberately used to vilify a system of compensation that was designed to compensate innocent victims, identify errors and to deter unsafe [and expensive] practices. As a result of this demagoguery, few elected officials are willing to examine these issues in a clinical and reasonable fashion, divorced from special interests (whether they be "trial lawyers" or the medical societies and their insurers).
We have noticed over the years, though, that the public servants who have cried "wolf" over the cost and harm of litigation are frequently the same people who express the greatest shock and dismay when they learn that they or a family member is precluded from taking legal action to right a perceived wrong. A prime example would be Supreme Court Justice nominee Robert Bork who advocated "lawsuit reform" for two decades before he tripped while mounting the stage for a speech, and then had the audacity to file suit claiming millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. We wish him all of the success that he would have allowed himself if he were sitting as a judge.