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Suing doctors for medical harm is harder than we think

It’s a common belief that because medical professionals are afraid of being sued, they order more tests than necessary to rule out possible issues. There’s more concern about legal action if something is missed and causes harm than there is about doing too much and causing harm. A recent article on the ProPublica website, by Marshall Allen and Olga Pierce, Patient Harm: When An Attorney Won’t Take Your Case, addresses the issue from the legal community’s perspective, and describes how it’s harder to obtain legal help and therefore compensation, than we’ve been led to believe.

Because lawyers are usually only paid if they win or settle, and they have substantial costs up-front, they may only take cases that are worth their while. The article states that, “A 2013 Emory University School of Law study found that 95 percent of patients who seek an attorney for harm suffered during medical treatment will be shut out of the legal system, primarily for economic reasons.” Apparently if you’re elderly, non-white, and/or have a low income it can be difficult to find a lawyer to represent you because the compensation might not be as great as it would be for someone who is wealthy. Other reasons for not taking on your case may be if the state you live in has a cap on medical malpractice compensation, and if the damages are less than $250,000.

The Emory study offered suggestions to reform the system and my favorite one was to switch from the judicial system to an administrative one to hear and manage complaints. Patients who are seeking legal compensation have already been through a rough time, so to remove the extra burden of legal fees required to seek compensation would be helpful to them. Administrative systems similar to the model suggested in the study have been operating in Scandinavia and New Zealand for several decades.

Patients are people, too!
When medical professionals take us down the rocky road of multiple testing, we may be paying the price – physically, emotionally and financially. If the reason is that they don’t want to “miss something” and be sued, and this occurs so rarely, why do we allow this practice to harm us?  We’re back to the issue of communicating with our doctors so we can determine which tests are the right tests and we can receive the right care we deserve.

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