BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Tort reform -- legislation that aims to reduce
medical malpractice suits -- will not cut medical costs and improve
health care unless the government addresses the proliferation of
unnecessary medical errors that victimize hundreds of thousands of
patients every year, says Ruqaiijah (pronounced Roo-KY-ah) Yearby,
MPH, JD, associate professor in the University at Buffalo Law
Yearby's research considers how laws enacted to grant equal
access to quality health care can actually pose barriers to the
disenfranchised, and she is critical of health care reform efforts
that do not address the far-reaching problem of medical errors.
Finding ways to curb what she calls the "alarming rate of these
medical errors," will not only reduce medical malpractice suits but
save lives and reduce the misery of innocent victims, she says.
Yearby, who directs the Joint JD/Master of Public Health Program
at UB, cites data from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the health
arm of the National Academy of Sciences, regarding medical errors
and their consequences.
"The IOM concludes that about 98,000 Americans died from
unnecessary medical errors in 2000," she says, "deaths that cost
the nation approximately $39 billion." In August of this year, she
adds, additional data showed that deaths from unnecessary medical
errors have increased to about 200,000, making medical error the
third-leading cause of death in the United States.
"Instead of adopting the IOM's recommendations to prevent such
medical errors, however, federal and state governments have elected
to focus on tort reform," Yearby points out.
While such reform has led to minimal reductions in the costs of
health insurance and a reduction in medical malpractice suits,
Yearby says the underlying problem of poor-quality health care
In 2003, for instance, she points out that Texas voters approved
a plan that capped non- economic damages in medical malpractice
lawsuits at $250,000.
"The result," she says, "was that the number of malpractice
lawsuits was cut in half, malpractice premiums declined by 30
percent and there has been a 30 percent increase in newly licensed
"Despite this, however," Yearby says, "one in four Texans
remains without health insurance -- the highest percentage of
uninsured in the country -- and health care spending in Texas is
growing faster than in any state."
"Obviously, tort reform alone is not the answer," she says,
"because it does not address the root cause of malpractice
lawsuits: the continuation of unnecessary medical errors."
Instead of spending all this effort on tort reform, Yearby calls
for federal and governments to do something to discourage the
errors themselves. She recommends measures that would lay the
foundation for tracking and preventing medical errors, thereby
making malpractice lawsuits unnecessary.
"We need to create a mandatory national medical error reporting
system and adopt initiatives that mandate the disclosure of medical
errors," she says, and also strongly urges states to require health
care facilities and health care practitioners to apologize for
errors and compensate patients or families for harm.
"State initiatives like those in Michigan and other states that
require the disclosure of medical errors are the best models for
health care reform because everyone gets what they want: reasonable
insurance rates," Yearby says, "a fair partnership between the
medical profession and government, and, perhaps most important,
better care for patients, who need a system they can trust."
New York is another state that has addressed the problem, but in
an inadequate way, Yearby says. She points out that while New York
requires mandatory reporting of medical errors, it does not use
this information to regulate health care facilities or health care
practitioners, and it does not disclose the information to
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