Before we limit malpractice lawsuits, let's limit medical mistakes


Doctors are sued when mistakes are made. Hopefully, the medical profession will work to eliminate mistakes that former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D., has called for. Would limiting malpractice suits have an effect to limit much-needed reform?

How bad is medical malpractice? According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Barbara Starfield of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, the third-leading cause of death in this country after heart problems and cancer is adverse reaction to medical treatment and medical mistakes.

On request, she will send you a copy of Is U.S. Health Care Really the Best in the World? Her e-mail address is

Note that the word “iatrogenic” used in the article means “doctor-caused.” The United States ranks near the bottom in 16 different categories of health care.

Medical costs are out of reason. My friend Dr. Jack Zwemer, who has spent a lifetime teaching in medical schools, was visiting in Australia when his wife, Carol, had a pulmonary stroke and was hospitalized for 10 days, during which she received excellent care. The cost was $5,600, and had it happened in the U.S., Jack says it would have been at least $100,000. Ridiculous!

During the Great Depression of the 1930s doctors, who are in the highest-paid profession, and the not-for-profit hospitals absorbed the cost of indigent care. Today, the for-profit hospitals have made multimillionaires out of the Frist family, the governor and many others in the Nashville area, including already-rich Jack Massey of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. And people are wondering how we can provide care for the poor. There is some thing rotten in the state of health care.

In 1940, the birth of a baby at Saint Thomas Hospital cost $35. The birth of my grandson, born in Chattanooga in 1971, cost about $1,300, including the doctor.

At that same time, my friend Dr. Byron Harbolt and his nurse-wife delivered babies at their clinic in the financially depressed area of Altamont, Tenn., for $150. On this income, they educated two daughters and sent a son through medical school.

Let’s keep pressure on the medical establishment until they greatly reduce mistakes that, in turn, would greatly bring down the number of malpractice cases.
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