Cost of malpractice insurance forcing doctors to leave high-risk specialties

By Dr. MICHAEL LYNCH
http://www.concordmonitor.com

I am an emergency physician. I care for about 5,000 patients a year. I have been practicing for 12 years and thus have cared for roughly 60,000 patients.

I receive deep satisfaction from my job and the privilege of the “laying on of hands” as the physician-patient relationship is called in medical school. Most of the time, I rely on the good graces and expertise of the primary care physicians, surgeons and many other specialists to help take care of the people who come to me seeking help. However, recent trends suggest that our hospitals’ ability to deliver that care with the help of appropriate specialists is eroding.

A great deal of this quiet but steadily growing crisis is caused by the direct and indirect costs of medical malpractice. The article about the malpractice suit involving Dr. Eric Leefmans (“Man wins $1.75 million suit against area doctor,” Sunday Monitor, March 9) demands a response from the medical community.

I take great pride in the hospital where I practice and the physicians I practice with. Many of them worked at or were asked to be academics at major medical institutions. They chose this area because of the quality of life and the quality of medical care delivered here.

Doctor shortage

I would like to send a warning to the residents of New Hampshire: Based on current trends, there will be many fewer of those familiar providers to care for you in 10 years.

Who will be there, for example, to take care of you or a loved one when you have a trauma in the future? In the emergency department, we rely on providers who take calls and come in to take care of patients with medical or surgical illnesses. (Dr. Leefmans was serving that call when he was asked to come in to care for a patient who was ejected from a car on Sept. 15, 2003.) However, there is not an endless list of people, like Dr. Leefmans, waiting to take these rigorous and difficult jobs and suffer the burden of the current medical malpractice environment. There is a long list of people who have removed themselves from call or would like to do so.

In New Hampshire, many physicians are leaving as malpractice insurance costs soar. Specialty physicians have experienced a 50 percent increase in premiums from five years ago. The average premium is now close to $100,000 for obstetricians and neurosurgeons.

Soaring insurance costs

Concord and Manchester have seen a significant decrease in subspecialty coverage in the past five years, including neurosurgical and oral surgery coverage for call. Several small hospitals in the state practice without an anesthesiologist. Only one obstetrician remains to deliver babies in the northern part of the state. Locally, many subspecialty groups have had significant challenges recruiting new physicians to practice in this area. General surgery, one of the most coveted residencies just 10 years ago, now struggles to fill residency positions. Several recent studies and articles predict a significant and increasing gap between the demand and availability of physicians of all types.

Personal responsibility

In cases such as Dr. Leefmans’s, where is the discussion of personal responsibility and the societal cost incurred by a patient who seems to have not been wearing a seatbelt and was ejected from a car?

Where is the discussion about the fact that the man’s loss of vision most likely arose from the head trauma from being thrown 150 feet rather than the lack of a transfusion as a leading ophthalmologist from Johns Hopkins testified? What about a discussion of who the expert witness was for the plaintiffs? What about the fact that the prosecuting attorney would make between $300,000 and $400,000 on this case and has a perverse financial incentive to prosecute such a case?

Malpractice attorneys say patients need the ability to sue for damages and to be protected from negligence. As in all professions, errors are made; as physicians, we recognize our fallibility and go to great efforts through quality assurance, case reviews and other measures to learn from mistakes and to avoid future errors. However, the extraordinary financial gain lawyers receive from a successful lawsuit decreases their moral authority and credibility on this issue compared to the physicians who spend endless time and effort training for and then caring for their patients. Physicians are there because they love helping and healing patients. When they cannot do that, they give solace. However, the threat of lawsuits and the expectation that everyone will have a perfect outcome, no matter how severe the illness or the trauma, has created an increasingly confrontational relationship between the physician and the patient.

Professional ‘experts’

When reading about a lawsuit in the paper, most people assume there was negligence. The basis for establishing negligence often rests on the opinion of experts who are paid $500 to $1,000 per hour to render an opinion that supports the plaintiff. These people often are professional “experts” and garner a large amount of their income from traveling from case to case. When there is such a strong financial motivation to win or support a malpractice suit, and when physicians are leaving areas of high demand or leaving medicine altogether, we have an urgent need for malpractice reform. Tort reform has passed the U.S. House and failed each time in the Senate. Most recently, in 2003, a bill failed by several votes. That bill would have capped non-economic damages at $250,000, thus avoiding the excessive and disproportionate judgments.

Our medical system is going through significant difficulties, including increasing health insurance costs, a growing uninsured population, rising medical costs and loss of specialists and primary care physicians. However, the cost of malpractice contributes to those problems – while making less money available to care for the uninsured. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has estimated medical liability costs add $60 billion to $108 billion to the cost of health care each year. Interestingly, the estimated annual cost of covering all of the uninsured patients in the United States is $100 billion.

As a health-care consumer, you should consider exactly who will be there to take care of you in your time of need in the future. Now is the time to decide whether we want to continue on the ominous path we are on, losing our excellent sub-specialists, obstetricians and primary care physicians, or if we want to face the truth that the greater good of the community supercedes an individual’s right to some extraordinary and disproportionate recompense for a tragedy.

Physicians are healers and care deeply about their patients. That is why they fight for their lives. However, as current trends show, when future calls are made from the emergency department seeking help, those physicians may not be there.

(Dr. Michael Lynch lives in Concord.)

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the concordmonitor.com….it has however been moved of deleted. We will keep Dr. Lynch’s article on our website for archiving purposes. If you are interested in medical malpractice insurance in Connecticut, click here.

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