It is only in recent months that Floridians, and many Americans, are beginning to feel the effects of the current malpractice climate cannibalizing our healthcare system. At this point, most of us have personal anecdotes on how this has affected us, a loved one, a friend.
Some are minor inconveniences, such as having to drive a long distance to find a practicing obstetrician, or waiting untold hours for the overburdened subspecialist to arrive at the emergency room. Other stories are more tragic; the patient with a hemmorhagic stroke who recently died because a practicing neurosurgeon was no longer available in a large part of Palm Beach County. Make no mistake: Physicians are retiring early, limiting their practices or even leaving the state of Florida and other parts of the country because of the fear of being sued or the inability to afford liability insurance.
Myself and hundreds of other concerned doctors recently descended upon our state capitol to increase public awareness of this critical issue. We all took a day off from our busy practices to try and illustrate the magnitude of this problem to our state legislators. In most cases, we met with an aide, a secretary, a staff member. I felt in most cases that our efforts were in vain. It seemed apparent that our lawmakers often have their minds made up on where they stand on this issue. I also felt that in many cases, it was influenced economically. As I have come to learn, the trial lawyers’ lobby has invested much more money and effort into this battle. You see, we doctors have all been too busy taking care of patients. It is ironic that this very fact is leading to our downfall.
I have heard many arguments as to the cause of our current woes. My favorite is that the recent stock market slide has led to insurance companies increasing our malpractice insurance rates in order to cover their losses. Funny how these same people never mention the fact that our media sources are flooded with paid advertisements by attorneys offering to get you just “compensation” for any adverse medical outcome. These ads do not mention that nearly 95% of cases are settled before going to court indicating that there is a price to avoid the time and expense of court litigation, regardless of culpability. When cases do come to trial, the physician wins 80% of the time suggesting the inappropriateness of the charge. As a hand surgeon, if I only had a success rate of 20%, I would surely lose my license and all of my certification credentials. Not so for our legal system!
While both sides continue to bicker as to the cause of the current calamity, the system will continue to deteriorate. Not only is basic care suffering, but the overall costs of health care will continue to skyrocket. Some may attribute this to increased technology, which overall is a good thing, but much has to do with a combination of managed care inefficiencies and the medicolegal climate. Do not underestimate the latter cause. Ask any physician and they will surely tell you that we order a multitude of tests simply to ensure that no stone is unturned in diagnosis and treatment. This way, we have more ammunition for battle on the legal playing field. I can assure you that no physician spends, on average, 13 years of education and training to play that game. But it has come to this.
So how will this problem be resolved? As usual, the majority will win in due time, and in this case, represents the patients themselves. During this process, smokescreens will be introduced such as the recent comment by an prominent attorney that “doctors don’t care who they maim or kill!” I am confident that the average citizen will come to realize that it is more important to have a brain surgeon available than a “slip and fall” lawyer. It is more critical to have an able oncologist, than a malpractice attorney when one is stricken with that fearful disease.