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The Reality of how Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Promote Patient Safety

The New York Times published an article last week that discusses the positive role medical malpractice claims can play in reducing medical error and promoting patient safety. The author, Joanna C. Schwartz, a UCLA law professor provides ample evidence for a phenomenon she labeled "introspection through litigation."

Every year, tens of thousands of people die and hundreds of thousands are injured, as a result of medical error. Conventional wisdom is that malpractice litigation does little to improve patient safety and, in fact, harms the cause. Moreover, many believe that the fear of malpractice liability inhibits the kind of transparency needed to identify and learn from errors when they occur.

New evidence, however, directly contradicts these conventional beliefs and in fact, the exact opposite seems to be occurring: the openness and transparency promoted by patient safety advocates appear to be influencing hospitals' responses to litigation risk. Through an exhaustive study, Shwartz found that hospitals, once afraid of disclosing and discussing error for fear of liability, increasingly encourage transparency with patients and medical staff. Furthermore, risk managers and patient-safety personnel overwhelmingly report that lawsuit data have proved to be extremely useful in efforts to identify and address medical error, in particular with previously unknown or underreported incidents of error. In addition, litigation discovery can uncover useful details about safety and quality concerns. Analysis of claim trends can reveal problematic procedures and departments, and closed litigation files can serve as rich teaching tools.

"Learning from Litigation" is an outstanding article and it sheds much needed light on this hotly contested debate by re-examining the role that medical malpractice lawsuits actually play in hospital patient safety efforts. Shwartz provides solid evidence that malpractice litigation is providing multiple positive effects on the health care system, including increased transparency, increased willingness to admit mistakes, and in turn, increased patient safety.