Med mal suits boost patient safety


Information from medical malpractice suits is increasingly helping to drive advancements in patient safety, a new study has found. The study was carried out by Joanna Schwartz, assistant professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles and will be published in October in the NYU Law Review under the title A Dose of Reality for Medical Malpractice Reform.

“The study was an effort to understand the role that medical malpractice lawsuits play in hospital patient safety efforts,” said Schwartz. In particular, she was interested in testing the popular belief that medical malpractice litigation is contrary to patient safety efforts because it inhibits the kind of openness and transparency required in order to learn from errors.

The study consisted of a series of 25 interviews with individuals including risk managers, chief medical officers and patient safety officers, followed by an email survey of over 400 risk managers and patient safety advocates, and a further 10 interviews with individuals who had responded to the survey.

The findings showed that whereas malpractice litigation had historically been kept separate from patient safety information and there had been a disinclination to have any open discussion of errors for fear of malpractice liability, the conventional wisdom is changing.

“The vast majority of people that I spoke to reported that although five to ten years ago litigation information had been shrouded in secrecy, they were becoming more open – both with patients when errors occur and also more willing to discuss errors within the hospital as an effort to learn from them,” said Schwartz.

She found that risk managers increasingly see their role as including improving patient safety and that the move towards transparency is being driven by hospital policies and state laws requiring hospitals to disclose and sometimes apologise when errors occur. The change is also being driven by evidentiary protection of internal discussions.

Schwartz found that lawsuits have now become a valuable source of information about errors.

“Not only did the hospitals in my study report integrating information from lawsuits into their patient safety efforts, they also reported that lawsuits revealed new and useful information about incidents of medical error,” she said.

Schwartz concluded that litigation is another valuable source of information for those who are seeking to improve patient safety.

“Improving patient safety reduces risk – not just risk of errors but also the risks of litigation and the associated costs, so it’s a lesson I think risk managers are learning and applying increasingly over the years,” she said.


Med mal, patient safety, malpractice