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Malpractice suits can be like unmasking Wizard of Oz. Why?

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." With that famous line, the namesake of "The Wizard of Oz" attempted to avoid being unmasked. It didn't work. Thanks to Toto, the vision of Oz the Great and Powerful was forever shattered and we learned that he was only human.

Something of that same air of mystery tends to hang over the health care industry. In fact, it's practically built in. While leaders in the industry claim to seek to improve care by collecting data about errors that often result in life-altering injuries, they tend not to reveal exactly what went wrong in particular cases. The effect is that practitioners and institutions may avoid accountability. 

The industry's lobbyists have also been successful in Ohio and other states in getting laws passed to cap awards to those they injure. The argument that usually made in support of the measures is that out-of-control awards are driving up health care costs, and rising malpractice insurance costs are driving doctors out of business.

As the website TrueCostofHealthcare.org points out, though, even that argument seems to be largely a case of smoke and mirrors.

Yes, malpractice insurance premiums rise according to the riskiness of a doctor's practice. But as the M.D. author of the website points out, the general public perception that insurance coverage costs are massive just isn't supported by the facts.

As he reveals, his cost for insurance is only about $3,000 a year and it has actually gone down in recent years. He says colleagues in his office building that he questioned pay similar sums apparently commensurate with the nature of their practices and have seen their premiums drop, too.

What his own research indicates is that since the turn of the century, malpractice suits have gone down and payouts for malpractice claims in the U.S. have fallen by as much as 25 percent up through 2010.

His conclusion is that neither malpractice suits nor insurance premiums appear to influence health care costs. Rather, he suggests "fear of malpractice" may be prompting the ordering of unneeded tests that run up bills. Still, he observes, "not ordering a test that should have been ordered" would, in his view, constitute legitimate grounds for malpractice.  And with the built in lack of transparency, an attorney's skills can be critical in pulling back the curtain.

Source: TrueCostOfHealthcare.org, "Medical Malpractice: Myths and Realities," David Belk, MD, accessed June 9, 2014

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