Medical malpractice happens. It is a fact of life for thousands of innocents both locally and internationally and in many cases, it can be a game changer. The temptation is to think, to hope, to hypothesize, that it will never happen to you? You will never be hit by lightning, never suffer a collision with a bus or indeed play the starring role in a medical malpractice case? The numbers don’t lie people, it could be you or I caught out, woefully unprepared and or poorly informed. How to deal with a negligence case, how to navigate through the red tape of a malpractice case, those are the big questions and the key answers open for intensive debate.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), medical negligence is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.A, that is, behind heart disease and cancer. In 2012, over $3 billion was spent in medical malpractice payouts, averaging one payout every 43 minutes. Medical malpractice occurs when a health-care provider deviates from the recognized “standard of care” in the treatment of a patient. The “standard of care” is defined as what a reasonably prudent medical provider would or would not have done under the same or similar circumstances. In essence, it boils down to whether the provider was negligent.
A malpractice claim exists if a provider’s negligence causes injury or damages to a patient. However, experiencing a bad outcome isn’t always proof of medical negligence. Also, on occasion, health-care providers will inform a patient that the person has received negligent medical care from a previous health-care provider and—presumably in an effort at complete honesty—will sometimes tell a patient that they, themselves, have made a mistake.
Insurance companies typically want to settle with an injured person directly if they can, and this allows them to do so before the full extent of injuries are known, as well as preventing the injured person from hiring an attorney who could increase the settlement value of the claim through their representation. Consequently, most experienced medical malpractice attorneys will not pursue a case unless the injuries and damages documented in the records—after they’ve been reviewed by an expert in the pertinent specialty—are substantial and justify it.
Being proactive about medical care is undoubtedly the best step. Patients should do research to understand their health condition, and document their symptoms. They should ask health-care providers a written list of questions that they feel are important, and expect—indeed, demand—full and complete answers. It’s also critical not to allow yourself to be intimidated by the medical system. Speak up and advocate for your own well-being. If patients sense that something is wrong, they should tell—or ask—their health-care providers. Although it’s important to trust your doctor or nurse, it’s also important to listen to your body … and use common sense. Also advisable: Have a family member or friend accompany you on important visits to healthcare providers.
Patients choose not to pursue valid medical malpractice claims for numerous reasons: Some are concerned that other doctors will learn of their cases and refuse to treat them. Some fear—incorrectly—that it will lead to an increase in the cost of their medical care. And others forgo valid claims due to the perceived personal and financial costs associated with litigation.
Although the medical school adage of “treat the patient and not the test” has value, it’s also important for health-care providers to carefully assess the information provided by the tests that they order. I’ve witnessed many instances in which highly abnormal test results were either interpreted incorrectly or disregarded by physicians—sometimes with fatal consequences.
Hospital systems and health-insurance companies significantly impact the quality of medical care that patients receive. Your health is too important to place in the hands of a provider who hasn’t earned your confidence, isn’t answering questions or isn’t giving you—or your condition—adequate time and attention. Always be on guard or as a very wise medical patient once said “Always hope for the best but prepare for the worst”.