Study supports link between improved patient safety and reduced malpractice claims

New research from the RAND Corporation indicates that bolstering patient safety efforts doesn't just benefit patients, but physicians and hospitals as well, by combating malpractice litigation.

Researchers studied both medical malpractice claims and adverse events such as post-surgical infections across California counties from 2001 to 2005 and found that changes in the frequency of adverse events strongly correlated with corresponding changes in the volume of medical malpractice claims.

Although the number and frequency of adverse events and malpractice claims varied significantly by county, the link could translate to 3.7 fewer malpractice claims for a county that experienced 10 fewer safety events during the same year, said study co-author Amelia Haviland, a RAND statistician.

While policymakers involved in health reform have conjectured that safety and malpractice go hand-in-hand, this study is the first to demonstrate a link between improving performance on 20 well-established indicators of medical safety outcomes and lower medical malpractice claims, notes a press release. A recently announced federal initiative on medical liability reform and patient safety is aimed at investigating and expanding policy interventions designed to boost patient safety.

"The patient safety movement suggests that patient injuries sometimes occur as a result of the failure of complex systems rather than negligence, and that efforts to identify the root causes of these failures are an important tool for protecting patients and for reducing injury rates," said Michael Greenburg, the study's lead author and a behavioral scientist with RAND.

California's size, diversity and established malpractice reforms make examining this state particularly meaningful, researchers noted.

Interestingly, the RAND findings surface alongside the California Department of Public Health announcing its latest round of fines, including charges for serious patient safety violations against seven hospitals. Sanctioned hospitals included Southwest Healthcare Systems (the first to incur a $100,000 fine under a new escalating penalty system), California Pacific Medical Center, Kaiser Foundation Hospital, Scripps Mercy Hospital, St. Bernadine Medical Center, St. Joseph's Hospital and Sutter Davis Hospital, reports the Los Angeles Times.

To learn more:
- read this Medical News article
- check out this RAND press release
- here's the report
- read this California Healthline piece
- here's the Los Angeles Times article