The average doctor can spend almost 11 percent of his or her career waiting for malpractice cases to be decided, according to a study printed in the January issue of Health Affairs. For some specialists, nearly a third of their careers can be spent in malpractice limbo. The results aren’t pretty:
The length of time it takes to resolve a malpractice claim is a stress on patients, physicians and the legal system. The time spent with open claims may be even more distressing for physicians than the financial costs of malpractice claims.
Malpractice suits aren’t the only administrative matter sucking up doctors’ valuable time. Much of our health care system, including the way we still keep medical records, is wasteful, antiquated, and ungainly. The whole industry needs to be streamlined—and with the help of new information technology designed to handle routine business like this, it can be. This will free up our doctors to do the kind of work they went into medicine to do in the first place, and it will make the system run much more smoothly.
But fixing our malpractice problems will require more than this. IT can help speed up the time it takes for any one claim to be resolved, but the sheer number of claims that are filled every year would still be a significant drag on the system, as are the various procedures that doctors order in the name of ‘defensive medicine’ to protect them against future lawsuits. In addition to IT, we also need to update the legal norms surrounding malpractice claims, as the study’s authors note:
The best remedy would be to have a system in place where the judicial and health care system could more easily screen out cases that don’t meet the legal or medical standards for malpractice, the researchers said. In cases where malpractice occurs, compensation should be fair and swift, and in cases where there is no merit to the claim, rapid dismissal of the case would prevent significant resources from being wasted.
Reform malpractice, streamline the flow of decision making, get doctors out of the paperwork business and back into the business of healing: all this would help cut costs in the health care system, but in many ways we seem to be headed in just the opposite direction.
Obamacare hasn’t ended America’s health care crisis, and while the new system is not a total loss, in some very important ways its implementation will make things worse.