Do Strong Malpractice Laws Improve Patient Outcomes?
Malpractice laws are designed to provide patients with a legal recourse in the event that they are harmed by a physician providing substandard care. Proponents of these laws also tend to argue that they improve quality of care by providing physicians with an incentive to do their jobs well. But do strict malpractice laws really protect patients from surgical complications and medication dosage errors?
According to an extensive study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, it’s not clear that aggressive malpractice laws reliably improve patient outcomes. Instead, these laws can pressure doctors to spend more time and resources on tests and treatments that may not always benefit patients.
“It doesn’t really work – malpractice environment doesn’t influence doctors to provide better care,” said lead study author Dr. Karl Bilimoria in a statement to Reuters Health. “Rather, it may lead to defensive medicine practices where more tests and treatments are ordered unnecessarily just to try to minimize malpractice risk.”
The study’s results were based on data from 890,000 Medicare patients who received care at more than 3,000 hospitals from around the country. The researchers also examined state-specific data on malpractice insurance premiums, average award sizes and a number of insurance claims per 100 physicians.
After analyzing data from a number of states with distinctly different malpractice laws, the researchers found that stricter laws and larger malpractice awards did not reduce the risk of postoperative complications in patients. It’s important to note that states with malpractice caps didn’t see significantly better patient outcomes either. In general, there simply wasn’t much correlation between the strength of a state’s malpractice laws and its patient outcomes.
“This study contributes further evidence that liability pressure doesn’t spur doctors to get better results for patients, but neither does adopt reforms to limit liability,” said Stanford University law professor Michelle Mellow in a statement to Reuters Health.
So what can legislators do to improve patient outcomes in their state?
Some health officials and legal experts have suggested establishing a new national standard by which to judge doctors’ performance. When states consistently fall below the national average, health officials can identify areas that need improvement and implement remediation programs to provide doctors with additional training. It would likely require a federal mandate to get all 50 states on board, but it could have a measurable positive impact on patient outcomes nationwide.