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Lawsuits promote reforms in health care system

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE

Lawsuits promote reforms in health care safety

CHELSEA CONABOY’S Aug. 18 article and the study it references provide interesting data regarding the relatively few instances in which patients are compensated for harm resulting from medical professionals’ failure to observe rules of safety (“Over career, most doctors in US will face lawsuit,’’ Page A1). However, more emphasis should be placed on the important connection between medical negligence actions and the roles they play in promoting patient safety.

In a study of Medicare patients published in 2010, the US Department of Health and Human Services found that, of the estimated 1 million Medicare patients discharged from the hospital in October 2008, 134,000 were harmed by medical care. Of this number, 44 percent of the errors (or those occurring to approximately 59,000 patients) were considered to be “clearly or likely preventable.’’

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A second study published in The New England Journal of Medicine on Nov. 25, 2010, found that 18 percent of the patients studied were harmed by medical care. Of these, 63 percent of the errors and the resulting injuries were found to be preventable. According to an Institute of Medicine study, 98,000 people die each year from medical errors.

In the same way that product liability law has brought us safer cars and toys, medical negligence actions promote reforms in health care safety. Beyond the cold numbers, there are flesh and blood patients and families who put safety in the hands of health care institutions.

Andrew Abraham, President

Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys

Burlington

Doctors can be traumatized by litigation

RE “OVER career, most doctors in US will face lawsuit’’ (Page A1, Aug. 18): In highlighting the likelihood that a doctor will be sued in his or her career, we shouldn’t miss the extent of the psychological trauma for these individuals, and the impact this has on their careers.

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As a psychiatrist who supports physicians through malpractice litigation, I have witnessed how the initiation of a lawsuit on people who have committed themselves, often at tremendous financial and emotional cost, to what is now a grueling and demanding profession is demoralizing and emotionally taxing. More often than not, it may be motivated by a patient’s wish to get compensated for a very unfortunate outcome, often beyond the capacity of the medical system to prevent.

Doctors accused of “intentional harm’’ through a malpractice lawsuit feel shamed, isolated, and terrified. They come to view subsequent patients - individuals whom they are deeply committed to help - as potential adversaries.

The study your article cites helps us understand the urgent need to support our health care providers so that they can continue in their commitment to our health and well being.

Dr. Kenneth M. Settel, Brookline

The writer is a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.