This past July, a Baltimore City jury awarded $21 million to a couple from Glen Burnie, Maryland. In 2003, their son was born prematurely with cerebral palsy at Harbor Hospital. A month prior to that, $55 million was awarded to another Baltimore couple whose son was born with cerebral palsy at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Although both health systems maintain that they were not at fault in these cases, the effects on future medical malpractice cases and insurance premiums will likely be extensive. According to the National Practitioner Data Bank, the judgments of these two verdicts total more than the $72.2 million awarded in Maryland medical malpractice lawsuits in all of 2011, leaving doctors and hospitals wondering: what will be the fall out?
Common fears are that there will be an increase in the number of medical malpractice cases filed, as well as an increase in the cost of medical malpractice insurance. The effects of increased cases and higher medical malpractice insurance could then trickle down to patients’ costs. Others speculate that the fear of lawsuits and higher premiums will dramatically reduce the number of doctors who practice high-risk specialties, such as obstetrics and surgery. Additionally, cases like these can influence future settlements, as lawyers will reference them as benchmarks and ask for similar compensation.
While there is no evidence that higher medical malpractice premiums push doctors out, the fear is reasonable. After several large medical malpractice verdicts in 2004, insurance rates increased nearly 33%. Driving up the cost of medicine may cause doctors to react by leaving the state, retiring, practicing defensive medicine, or taking precautions in their willingness to care for high-risk patients. However, a study by Public Citizen, a national, non-profit consumer advocacy organization, contradicted this fear, stating that lawsuits do not affect malpractice insurance rates.
The bottom line is that only time will tell. In the meantime, doctors and hospitals should take a preventative approach to these malpractice issues. Good risk management is key. By evaluating the potential to experience and respond to an unexpected outcome and its consequential risk, doctors and hospitals can develop and employ risk reduction strategies, such as good communication and documentation skills. These, in turn, will help strengthen their protection and defense in the face of any potential malpractice concerns.
Read the Baltimore Sun article for more information about these judgements.