Malpractice payments hit record low

Providers may be underreporting to the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) as more physicians become hospital employees, Medscape reported.

Malpractice payments hit a record low in 2011, according to a report from consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. The number of malpractice payments on behalf of doctors (9,758 payments) was the lowest since 1991, the first full year of data after the NPDB started collecting information. The average size of medical malpractice payments (about $327,000) amounted to $3.2 billion, adjusted for inflation.

Public Citizen said the downward trend in malpractice payments doesn't necessarily mean safer medical care these days. Rather, the report undermines the idea that physicians practice defensive medicine to avoid litigation, and therefore tort reform is not necessary, the group suggested.

Tort reform advocates, however, call the report misleading.

Dismissing the idea that lawsuits are "frivolous," Public Citizen found that 80 percent of payments are for cases involving death, catastrophic harm or serious permanent injuries, suggesting that litigation does not contribute to soaring healthcare costs. Public Citizen instead found medical malpractice litigation costs only amounted to a fraction (0.36 percent) of national healthcare expenditures in 2010.

"Instead, malpractice victims and ordinary patients end up absorbing significant costs for uncompensated medical errors," Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division and report author, said in a statement last week.

The report also calls into question the accuracy of the NPDB information because many disciplinary actions and malpractice payments doled out on behalf of physicians never even make it to the Data Bank, Medscape noted.

For instance, settlement cases may remove the physicians' names from the case, a legal tactic that protects physicians under the corporate shield of the health organization. Brian Atchinson, president and CEO of the Physician Insurers Association of America (PIAA), said this kind of underreporting is increasing as more physicians become hospital employees.

Director of the Data Bank Cindy Grubbs previously told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette it is aware that dismissing doctors before a settlement is a way to avoid reporting the payment on their record, "but we have no way of knowing how often it occurs."

Although Public Citizen called the NPDB a poor source of malpractice information, Tom Baker, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, acknowledged that the NPDB is still the best information available, according to Medscape.

For more information:
- check out the Public Citizen study (.pdf)
- here's the Public Citizen announcement
- read the Medscape article

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