Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Medical Malpractice
The medical system is on the point of abandoning the city to escape abusive lawsuits. A series of observations about shared blame, ultimately assigns responsibility to the mistake of allowing this matter to be covered by insurance, thus creating a financial target.

Blame Managed Care?

Government Accountability Office

When confronted with any complicated and contentious issue like medical malpractice, the instinct of Congress is to ask for an impartial survey of the available literature on the topic from GAO. The Government Accountability Office has produced several well-balanced analysis of the situation, readily available to the public on its website. These cautiously worded reports complain that much information on this topic was collected for other purposes. For example, interstate malpractice insurance companies commonly collect information about classes of injury and types of subscribers, but often do not subdivide the information by the state of origin. Therefore, it is sometimes not possible to be confident of what effect varying state policies or laws may have had. Some of this data deficiency is being corrected but has not had time to accumulate into useful patterns. And divulging some data, like each company's investment performance on its reserves, is resisted as proprietary. After forty years of heated accusations between the medical and legal professions, this is disappointing.

{Insurance Lawyers}
Insurance Lawyers

The chief example of this sad situation is judging managed Care's effect on patient-doctor relations. Since reports like the Harvard study of medical negligence in New York demonstrate that disputes which result in lawsuits are less than ten percent of comparable male occurrences, patient animosity may be as important a stimulus to suit as the severity of an injury or the degree of negligence. Until hard data is produced, the issue is open to adversary rhetoric. The uncomfortable thing about Managed Careis its tendency to transfer doctor selection to a remote third party. The consequence, at least to some degree, is throwing doctors and patients together who do not like each other very much. Carried to the extreme, it would then be plausible for the degree of negligence to have less to do with triggering later lawsuits than does personal friction between patient and doctor. If you like him, you forgive; if you dislike him, you sue.

During the most recent period when malpractice suits, awards, and premiums rose to a level probably causing some physicians to abandon the practice, managed care simultaneously rose to become a dominant factor. It is safe to say many patients and many physicians hated being in this arrangement because it was essentially imposed on them both by employer group purchasers. There is some hope that some malpractice insurers have maintained records of their experiences, categorized by the type of health insurance of the plaintiff. These databases might establish whether managed care is responsible for increasing the number and cost of suits; it might assist other policy decisions as well. Those who scoff at the cost of tort litigation do not adequately acknowledge these far-reaching implications of many aspects of the issue.

Originally published: Wednesday, June 21, 2006; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019