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Fear of Malpractice Litigation

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, September 9, 2010

Still, we're talking billions of dollars. I talked to Reschovsky, focusing on the fear of malpractice that he targeted. In the study by Reschovsky and his colleagues, they say the "results raise the possibility that physicians' level of concern reflects a common tendency to overstate the likelihood of 'dread risks'—rare but devastating outcomes—and not an accurate assessment of actual risk."

To deal with litigation and its impacts, various states have adopted tort reform, some more effectively than others. The reforms include changing the way malpractice claims are addressed, including caps on various types of damages, as a way to respond to existing levels of overall practice risk, according to Reschovsky.

Yet, in the end, "many policies aimed at controlling malpractice costs may have a limited effect on physician malpractice concerns," Reschovsky and his colleagues state.

The physicians' attitudes, despite different state responses to malpractice, "were incredibly surprising," Reschovsky says. "Doctors are very fearful of malpractice, irrespective of the objective risk they face," he says.

There were variations in concern across specialties, physicians generally thought to be at higher risk for malpractice claims, such as emergency physicians and obstetrician-gynecologists—expressed greater concern.

 "For physicians, the idea of being sued is a great affront, emotionally, hassle-wise, and financially for that matter," Reschovsky adds.  "No one wants to be accused of doing harm. Most doctors do their jobs and want to help people."

That is certainly true, and the weight of potential lawsuits is a shadow that physicians try to live with, or elude. The fact is in the proverbial litigious society; nearly anyone in the world invites potential litigation, especially those in the public world, including journalists. In the 1980s, I wrote an investigative piece about a businessman, who later sued the newspaper I worked for, claiming damages, but a jury dismissed the civil lawsuit as invalid.

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