Patient Safety

Medical malpractice and patient safety have both a negative and positive connection. In the negative, medical malpractice jeopardizes patient safety; however, in the positive, medical malpractice can also serve to increase patient safety.

Medical malpractice is defined as any action that deviates from the standard of care and puts a patient at risk. In its most extreme, medical malpractice is responsible for 98,000 deaths annually. In essence, medical malpractice is the enemy of patient safety.

Conversely, though, medical malpractice can also serve as a patient safety safeguard. Medical malpractice liability serves as a powerful deterrent to deviating from the standard of care. Without such liability, there would be less of an incentive for doctors to practice safely and ethically.

When tort reform proponents argue for reduced medical malpractice liability, they fail to acknowledge the effect reduced liability will have on patient safety. Damage caps, filing requirements, and venue reform would effectively remove the teeth from our civil justice system. Without the ability to hold a negligent physician responsible, not only will medical malpractice victims suffer, all patients will in the form of less safe healthcare standards.

Outside rare examples of deliberately negligent physicians, there are many healthcare professionals who unknowingly commit medical errors. Medical malpractice brings these unintentional occurrences to the forefront, offering a teaching moment for other physicians. These physicians then analyze their own practices, possibly improve them, and work harder to promote patient safety.

In the context of reforming medical malpractice litigation, which makes more sense: reducing liability for errors or improving safety standard to prevent errors from happening in the first place? Instead of attacking patients’ rights, we should take a harder look at the root cause of errors to reduce medical malpractice cases.

A 2010 study of California’s hospitals showed a significant connection between patient safety and medical malpractice claims. Researchers found that hospitals with less adverse safety events also saw a drop in malpractice claims. The study strongly suggests that an increased spotlight on safety has the ability to also improve the medical malpractice litigation climate.

Even though tort reform advocates are waging a war against patient safety, state agencies are fighting back. Pennsylvania’s Patient Safety Advisory has become a national model for enhancing patient safety through cooperation with doctors and hospitals. To learn more about Pennsylvania’s Patient Safety Advisory, click here.

Tort reform will do little to improve patient safety. Instead of limiting victims’ rights, we should focus on improving safety standards to prevent medical malpractice for happening in the first place.