It is clear that hospitals are dangerous places. Sixteen years ago, the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences published a study, “To Err is Human,” and concluded that at least 44,000 patients were killed (and many more injured) in hospitals each year because of medical errors. This was a shocking number then. But the numbers got worse.
By 2011, the journal HealthAffairs released a study and estimated that the number of avoidable deaths was probably 10 times higher. There is substantial evidence that hundreds of thousands more patients are seriously injured through negligence. Further, doctors and hospitals are doing a poor job of policing themselves, yet they have been successful at keeping anyone else from doing it.
Surprisingly to most casual observers, despite the frequency of avoidable errors, very few wind up as medical malpractice lawsuits. Most people think there is a constant flood of medical malpractice litigation. But a 2013 study concluded that only about 1 percent of medical errors resulted in a claim. And from those, only a tiny percentage of malpractice cases result in doctors’ hospital privileges being curtailed.
Finally, even if a victim wins a medical malpractice lawsuit, awards are generally modest. Thirty-three states restrict the amount of compensation for the pain and suffering victims have endured. According to the Department of Justice, the median award by juries is $400,000; in bench trials, where the judge also serves as the jury, the median award is $631,000. So the numbers do not support the hue and cry of those who complain that litigation has completely paralyzed the medical industry. Instead, the data indicates that medical malpractice claims are very rare indeed.