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Average Medical Malpractice Settlement Takes 4 Years, Drives Up Health Care Costs: Study

Doctor Female Patient 5The U.S. medical malpractice system is widely viewed as inefficient due to the amount of time it takes to reach a resolution. The average medical malpractice settlement takes four years to be resolved, according to a new study from Health Affairs. This means that the average physician spends 11 percent of a 40-year career entangled in unresolved medical malpractice claims. Study authors obtained information from more than 40,000 physicians across the country.

Medical malpractice settlement time depends upon injury, age & specialty

Researchers found that the more severe the injury, the longer the claim took to resolve. More than half of all emotional injury cases were resolved within six months to one year. However, 62 percent of medical malpractice cases involving a fatality or permanent disability took at least one year to resolve; 17 percent took three or more years to arrive at a settlement.

Physician age and specialty were two other variables in the length of time it took to reach a medical malpractice settlement. For instance, younger physicians (ages 30-39) saw average resolutions reached in 16 months, compared to the 21 months it took for physicians over the age of 50. Furthermore, pediatricians and obstetricians saw faster resolution times than nephrology and oncology professionals.

The study concluded that reducing the time of litigation without undermining patient need is an important aspect of malpractice reform.

Doctors who fear medical malpractice claims demand more testing

A physicians’ survey by Jackson Healthcare found that 75 percent of doctors say they order more tests, procedures and medicines than are medically necessary to avoid lawsuits. reports that doctors who were highly concerned about a malpractice lawsuit performed additional testing on twice as many headache patients as doctors who said they were less concerned. Nearly a third of back pain patients were sent for additional imaging tests by litigation fearful physicians, compared to 18 percent of patients who saw unconcerned doctors.

Some say that defensive medicine is the best way to lower U.S. health care costs, but research conducted by Michelle Mello from the Harvard School of Public Health revealed that these tests added $55.6 billion — 2.4 percent of total spending — to health care costs in 2008. Other researchers find the $50 billion figure to be far too conservative. Gallup reports that as much as one in four healthcare dollars are attributed to defensive medicine spending – which amounts to $650 billion a year.

Proposed solutions to expedite medical malpractice claim process and bring down costs

Maura Calsyn from the Center for American Progress recommends creating a “safe harbor system,” where doctors who abided by a set of universal best practice guidelines would be immune from malpractice litigation.

The federal Agency for Health Care Research and Quality believes the U.S. health care system should move toward a process of “communication and resolution,” where hospitals proactively disclosed errors, apologized and offered compensation instead of waiting for patients to file claims.

In Georgia and Florida, a proposed “Patients’ Compensation System” would make it illegal to sue a doctor. Instead, administrative experts would hear medical claims in the event of patient injury. According to Forbes, “Patients’ claims would be heard more quickly and they would be compensated in a manner similar to our current legal system.”

The Forbes article goes on to explain that few patients who are harmed see compensation for their loss. Attorneys rarely take cases in which compensation is less than $500,000, according to a report by Emory University scholar Joanna Shepherd-Bailey. The writer contends that “Defensive medicine and the broken malpractice system are two of the major reasons the healthcare costs are soaring out of control.”

It could be some time before Americans see a resolution in the murky medical malpractice settlement realm, but the fact that researchers and experts are addressing the problem shows some promise for the future.