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Study: Medical Malpractice Suits Are a Small Percentage of Health Costs

Medical malpractice lawsuits are responsible for less than 2.5 percent of the total cost of U.S. health care, according to a new study. The Harvard School of Health study was published in the September issue of Health Affairs.

Doctors, hospitals and insurance companies have long argued that medical malpractice lawsuits are responsible for the soaring costs of health care. They also contend that physicians afraid of medical malpractice suits practice what is known as defensive medicine, ordering unneeded medical tests as a precaution against being sued.

Yet Harvard researchers found that the cost of medical malpractice suits, combined with the costs of defensive medicine, come to 2.4 percent of the total cost of U.S. health care.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that health care costs the average American $7,681 in 2008, adding up to $2.3 trillion.

Medical malpractice and defensive medicine contributed only $55 billion of that total, far less than what critics of the legal system and lobbyists for the health care industry have long claimed.

The reality of medical malpractice is that the vast majority of people who file lawsuits are those who have suffered severe injury or illness because of the negligence of a doctor, nurse or hospital. The victims of malpractice fight for compensation for a variety of reasons:

  • Compensation for medical bills incurred as a result of the negligent care they received; they often have to have corrective surgery, physical rehabilitation and other expensive treatments and procedures
  • Compensation for wages lost as a result of a preventable medical error; this can include past wages, current wages and diminishment of future earning power
  • Compensation non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, or the loss of a loved one
  • To serve as a disincentive to other physicians and hospitals to provide substandard care
  • To punish doctors, hospitals, nurses or others whose carelessness and negligence results in injuries or deaths

Though our legal system is imperfect, it has served Americans well for over 200 years.

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