What The Medical Industry Does Not Want You To Know

Every other day, it seems, we hear about another medical horror story. A Tampa, Florida, man has the wrong leg amputated. A 4-year-old girl from New York City bleeds to death after having her tonsils removed. An 8-year-old boy from Denver, Colorado, dies after his anesthesiologist falls asleep during surgery.

Yet at the same time, Americans are justifiably concerned about access to and quality of care. We read about big insurance companies and HMOs clamping down on which health care providers we can and cannot see -- and when we can see them. We read about assembly-line medicine and for-profit health care companies that make money when they deny Americans access to health care.

Given our anxiety over the quality of care, the last thing we ought to do is gut the laws that protect us and make sure the medical industry does not get away with bad medicine. This fact sheet documents the medical industry's "dirty secret" and why the industry wants to keep a lid on the malpractice epidemic in America.

  • Restricting injured patients' rights will do nothing to rein in runaway health care costs because medical malpractice premiums amount to less than 1 percent of those costs, according to a 1992 U.S. Congressional Budget Office report.

  • The medical industry's inability to contain the malpractice epidemic adds tremendously to the nation's health care bill. Troyen A. Brennan, one of the authors of the 1990 Harvard Medical Practice Study, testified before Congress in 1994 that "medical injuries [caused by providers] are associated with over $60 billion in costs, all of which the medical care system and other social welfare benefit plans now silently absorb."

  • Medical malpractice is all too common in America. The Harvard Medical Practice Study found that malpractice in one year in New York contributed to the deaths of nearly 7,000 people -- an average of 19 deaths per day -- and injured about 27,000 more.

  • According to extrapolations from the Harvard study, more than 95,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries nationwide were due in part to negligent medical care in one year alone.

  • However, the Harvard researchers found that only one in eight incidents of medical malpractice ever resulted in a legal claim by an injured patient. Not surprisingly, the researchers concluded that "we do not now have a problem of too many claims; if anything, there are too few."

  • Studies by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) confirm that malpractice cases are rare. About 5 percent of all civil cases in state courts in 1992 were related to personal injury (or "torts"), NCSC found. Of all torts, only 7 percent involved any type of professional malpractice, including medical negligence, it reported. Also, an American Medical Association publication stated in 1992 that the malpractice claims rate has dropped at an average annual rate of 8.9 percent since 1985.

  • Wrong drug prescriptions are a major cause of medical injury, according to a July 1995 Journal of the American Medical Association article. It reported that many adverse drug events are preventable, and that for every such event, there are almost three "potential" adverse drug events where either an incorrect drug is given but no reaction occurs or the drug error is intercepted before the order is carried out.

  • Despite this alarming incidence of malpractice only about 2,000 doctors (or one-third of 1 percent of all doctors in the United States) are disciplined each year by state medical boards, according to the Public Citizen Health Research Group. Most physicians who are disciplined are sanctioned for transgressions other than negligence, such as substance abuse or fraud.

  • The medical industry clearly has been incapable of policing its own and weeding out dangerous providers. Dr. Arnold S. Relman, editor-in-chief emeritus of the New England Journal of Medicine, has observed that 5 percent of all physicians are incapable of practicing medicine because they are either "alcoholics, drug addicts, senile, criminals or simply incompetent."

  • The medical industry's response to negligent care and incompetent providers has been to circle the wagons, and blame so-called "defensive medicine" (the ordering of tests out of liability concerns) and deflect attention from the unethical practice of physician self-referral (ordering tests at facilities in which the provider has a financial interest).

  • According to a July 1994 report by Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), physicians continue to "substantially overestimate their risk of being sued." Only a small percentage of diagnostic procedures -- "certainly less than 8 percent" -- is likely to be caused by a concern about malpractice liability, according to OTA.

  • Health care providers often have a financial incentive to run up costs, according to an October 1991 study by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). Physicians with financial interests in labs order up to 96 percent more tests than those without such interests. Prices at these labs are up to 38 percent higher than at independent, non- physician-owned labs, states CFA.

  • Nor will restricting injured patients' rights reduce health care providers' insurance premiums. Insurers have stated that they have no intention of reducing premiums and in states that have changed their liability laws, premiums have not been cut. In fact, medical malpractice is the most profitable line of insurance written nationwide. Losses paid by insurers in 1991 for medical negligence amounted to only 31 cents out of every $100 of health care spending, according to insurance industry monitor A.M. Best.

Used with permission from The Association of Trial Lawyers of America. All rights reserved.