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No Malpractice Crisis in Florida: Doctor Errors Greatly Exceed Lawsuits, Study Shows

Sept. 17, 2002

No Malpractice Crisis in Florida: Doctor Errors Greatly Exceed Lawsuits, Study Shows

Six Percent of Florida Doctors Responsible for Half of Malpractice; State Medical Board Does Poor Job of Disciplining Repeat Offenders

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Assertions that Florida is facing a “malpractice litigation crisis” are wrong; in fact, many more medical errors are committed than give rise to lawsuits, and just a small percentage of doctors are responsible for half of the malpractice awards in Florida, according to a report released today by Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy organization.

Bad business decisions by insurers also are key to rising medical malpractice insurance liability rates, the report said. Public Citizen used Florida hospital injury data and the National Practitioner Data Bank to debunk claims by the president of the American Medical Association (AMA), Florida doctors and business lobbyists that the number of medical malpractice lawsuits is excessive, and that cutting back consumer rights to use the courts could correct the problem.

“Florida already has some of the most Draconian medical malpractice restrictions of any state in the nation,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “Yet the American Medical Association and the Florida Medical Association want to limit people’s rights to be compensated for horrible medical injuries even further. Meanwhile, they offer false allegations and half-truths to divert attention from the real issue, which is poor medical care.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • The number of medical injuries reported by hospitals – where two-thirds of medical negligence occurs – exceeds by six to one the number of medical malpractice claims. From 1996 through 1999, Florida hospitals reported 19,885 adverse incidents but only 3,177 medical malpractice claims, according to Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration. Adverse incidents are defined by Florida state statute as “events over which health care personnel could exercise control” that result in death or injury. This means that for every six adverse incidents in the hospital, only one malpractice claim is filed – hardly a crisis.
  • Stunningly, only 6 percent of Florida doctors are responsible for half the malpractice and its costs. According to the National Practitioner Data Bank, 2,674 of the state’s 44,747 physicians have paid two or more malpractice awards to patients, making them responsible for 51 percent of all payments.
  • The Florida Board of Medicine, which is supposed to police the profession, is dangerously lenient with doctors. There are 24 doctors who have paid 10 or more medical malpractice judgments. Of those, only 12 have ever been disciplined by the Florida medical board. In fact, only 36 percent of Florida’s disciplinary actions in 2001 were serious – that is requiring license revocation, suspension, surrender or probation. When compared to the rest of the country, only two states were worse in that regard, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
  • Rate increases for many other types of insurance also are up in Florida. This is largely the result of insurance industry economics – major stock market losses mean insurers cannot continue to offer artificially low rates in the hopes of attracting more customers. In Florida in 2002, health insurance increased 20 to 28 percent while homeowners insurance increased more than 15 percent. Florida’s Department of Insurance has approved 2001-2002 rate increases for medical malpractice insurers ranging from 6 to 40 percent, with the average being 26 percent.

Public Citizen presented the report at a press conference with Floridians for Patient Protection, which discussed how the insurance industry is trying to shut the courthouse doors on victims of medical negligence and showed the devastating effects medical malpractice has on Florida’s families, communities and economy.

“There is no medical malpractice insurance crisis,” Claybrook said. “Rather, there is excessive doctor malpractice and an insurance industry profits crisis.”

According to the Institute of Medicine, medical errors are a leading cause of death in the United States. At least 44,000 and perhaps as many as 98,000 Americans die in hospitals each year as a result of medical errors. Deaths due to preventable adverse events exceed the deaths attributable to motor vehicle crashes (43,458), breast cancer (42,297) or AIDS (16,516). Further, medical errors are estimated to cost the economy between $17 billion and $29 billion. Medical malpractice costs represented just over one half of 1 percent of health care costs during the 1990s.

Claybrook recommended that: 1) all final board disciplinary actions with information about medical malpractice payouts, hospital disciplinary actions and federal disciplinary actions be made public; 2) medical professionals provide full disclosure to patients and families about errors; 3) doctors be rated on performance for malpractice premiums; 4) doctors with numerous claims be subject to higher malpractice premiums; and 5) the number of classifications of doctor specialties for insurance rating purposes be reduced because the risk pools for some are too small and thus overly influenced by a few losses; 6) the National Practitioner Data Bank be opened to the public; and 7) secret settlements of lawsuits involving medical malpractice be eliminated.

Click here to view the report on the Web. Click here to view Claybrook’s statement.