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An Important Article About Medical Malpractice

An Important Article About Medical Malpractice

June 22, 2005

We don't talk much about medical malpractice in this space. But every issue gets its turn sooner or later. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal had an keeper article about malpractice: "Once Seen As Risky, One Group of Doctors Changes Its Ways: Anesthesiologists Now Offer Model of How to Improve Safety, Lower Premiums." Here's a brief excerpt:

"The rising cost of medical-malpractice insurance has hit many doctors, especially surgeons and obstetricians. But one specialty has largely shielded itself: Anesthesiologists pay less for malpractice insurance today, in constant dollars, than they did 20 years ago. That's mainly because some anesthesiologists chose a path many doctors in other specialties did not. Rather than pushing for laws that would protect them against patient lawsuits, these anesthesiologists focused on improving patient safety. Their theory: Less harm to patients would mean fewer lawsuits.

"Over the past two decades, anesthesiologists have advocated the use of devices that alert doctors to potentially fatal problems in the operating room. They have helped develop computerized mannequins that simulate real-life surgical crises. And they have pressed for procedures that protect unconscious patients from potential carbon-monoxide poisoning.

"All this has helped save lives. Over the past two decades, patient deaths due to anesthesia have declined to one death per 200,000 to 300,000 cases from one for every 5,000 cases, according to studies compiled by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academies, a leading scientific advisory body.

"Malpractice payments involving the nation's 30,000 anesthesiologists are down, too, and anesthesiologists typically pay some of the smallest malpractice premiums around. That's a huge change from when they were considered among the riskiest doctors to insure. Nationwide, the average annual premium for anesthesiologists is less than $21,000, according to a survey by the American Society of Anesthesiologists. An obstetrician might pay 10 times that amount, Medical Liability Monitor, an industry newsletter, reports."

I learned about the transformation in anesthesiology years ago at Brandeis. It's great to see this important story documented. The message is clear -- the liability crisis solution has to be about more than just capping awards to injured patients.