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Michael Townes Watson

Media Perpetuates “Medical Malpractice” Hoax on Public

For the past six weeks we have heard bits and pieces of the story about Dennis Quaid’s twin babies who received an overdose of medication in the hospital. All of the major networks, magazines and newspapers have published various accounts of the event and its fallout. What is clear from the stories is that the babies got some sort of infection while in the hospital (just like hundreds of thousands of other hospital patients do every year). In order to treat the infection the babies were put on intravenous antibiotics, which required the administration of heparin (a blood-thinning agent) so that clots would not form at the site of the IV. The ultimate nightmare occurred when the wrong vial of heparin was used, and the babies got 100 times the safe dose. Their lives were seriously in danger for many days, and it is still not known if irreparable harm occurred. How can the public hear such a story and still support laws capping damages at levels that undermine the injured patients’ access to the justice system?

The Quaids, and others like them who are hurt by the healthcare system, are not maligned for hiring a lawyer, because the public seems to understand that a wrong was committed. Yet, in the same news cycle, we also hear about the Democratic Presidential race, where John Edwards, a trial lawyer, is in contention for the nomination. Whenever he does get some favorable news recognition above the roar of the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he or his campaign is confronted with some negative question about his background as a trial lawyer.

The media has swallowed, and is still reeling with heartburn over, the acid propaganda promulgated by the insurance industry about trial lawyers. Chris Matthews, who always wants to appear to “know the truth,” blasted Elizabeth Edwards, claiming that John Edwards profession was “running doctors out of Pennsylvania.” He takes this position, despite the fact that the insurance party line was dispelled in Chris Matthews’ own hometown newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, way back in 2004, at the height of what the insurance companies fraudulently labeled as the “malpractice crisis.”

The media has never reported the results of the exhaustive study done by Public Citizen, where the figures from the National Practitioner Databank (federally mandated data on medical malpractice settlements and verdicts) demonstrate that the Malpractice Crisis was a manufactured hoax. See here, where one can read the true statistics—the actual value of payments has been declining; payments correspond to the severity of injury; and that less than one-half of one percent of malpractice awards is for an amount over one million dollars. So, “litigious” patients are not filing lawsuits and getting rich at the expense of the system.

Nor did the media give any attention to the fact that the statistics straight from the American Medical Association demonstrate that physician supply has grown at more than four times the rate of the general population growth. That statistic holds true even for the period of time that the insurance companies were claiming a “malpractice crisis,” and also holds true for the “high-risk” specialties of ob-gyn and neurosurgery.

Why, then, does the media not report these events? It continues to denigrate the justice system for providing remedies to those, like the Quaid family, who simply try to hold accountable a hospital system that kills nearly 200,000 people every year by mistake; or a prescription medication industry that injures 1.5 million people every year. I believe that it is because people do not understand that they, or their loved ones, could easily become the victim.

Most practicing attorneys who handle malpractice cases on behalf of injured victims turn away huge numbers of cases, either because there is not clear proof of malpractice or the injuries sustained are not significant enough to warrant the expense and time of prosecuting a lawsuit. Studies from Harvard School of Public Health have shown that only one in seven malpractice victims even makes a claim. It takes an extremely disabling injury to warrant the tens of thousands (and sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollars necessary for a plaintiff to prosecute a case. That is why the malpractice cases covered by the media tend to have large jury verdicts—the injuries in those cases are severe. The media does not cover the cases where a plaintiff gets an award that does not “shock the public.” Nor does the media report that it sometimes takes many thousands of hours of manpower and hundreds of thousands of dollars for expert witness and court costs to prosecute a case against a pharmaceutical company that has withheld information proving its drug is dangerous.

There is nothing wrong with engaging a debate about how a candidate has made his money, or the profession in which he or she has engaged. We must be careful, however, to avoid reaching conclusions on incomplete or inaccurate (or in the case of the insurance industry, fabricated) data. If the justice system is to be used to do what it was designed for—to dispense justice—it must be judged not on propaganda, hyperbole or scare tactics. It must be judged on the merits of how it performs both in specific cases and by general statistics across the board.

The truth of the data is that malpractice occurs too often, and that the justice system, although costly, is the only adequate remedy for an injured victim. The media should give THAT the coverage that it deserves, rather than promulgating the insurance party line.

Michael Townes Watson, author of America’s Tunnel Vision—How Insurance Companies’ Propaganda Is Corrupting Medicine and Law.

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Posted at 3:47 PM, Jan 17, 2008 in Civil Justice
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