Every day in the United States, people seeking medical treatment are injured by health care providers who are careless or negligent. Some of these injuries are catastrophic leading to temporary or permanent disability or even wrongful death. Medical doctors, chiropractors, osteopaths, dentists, technicians, nurses, and others can be careless and cause injury, and when that happens, those professionals can be held accountable for their negligence. When the employee of a health care institution or facility is directly responsible for committing medical malpractice, that facility may also be a defendant in a malpractice claim. Health care providers are expected to adhere to high professional standards that protect both patients and the health care providers themselves.

Despite those standards, if you or someone you love is injured by medical malpractice – which can include medical misdiagnoses, surgical errors, and the prescribing of improper or dangerous drugs – discuss your legal rights and options at once with a good malpractice lawyer, and in the Chicago area, contact one of our experienced Chicago medical malpractice attorneys. A number of recent studies indicate that the number of deaths in the United States caused by preventable hospital errors may be as high as 98,000 annually. That’s more than 250 fatalities every day due to medical malpractice. Medical malpractice costs this nation more than $3.6 billion per year, and several reports say that medical malpractice is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

CONCERNS ABOUT HIGH COSTS

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 31 million people are injured severely enough each year to require medical treatment in the United States. However, the number of personal injury lawsuits filed each year is nowhere near 31 million. In fact, the total number of all civil lawsuits filed in the United States is about 15 million a year, and the number of medical malpractice claims is slowly declining. In Illinois, the total number of civil lawsuits in Illinois has declined by 26 percent since 2007. Medical malpractice cases in Illinois are down nearly 40 percent since 2003. And in 2013, Illinois’ largest medical malpractice insurance provider, ISMIE Mutual Insurance, reported record profits of $80 million, up forty percent from 2012. In fact, the company’s profits have increased each year since 2009 – when its profits totaled under $15 million – at the same time that the number of malpractice claims is dropping.

Doctors are justifiably concerned about the high cost of medical malpractice insurance premiums – and patients are concerned about the high price of health care – at a time when insurance companies are raking in huge profits. When suggestions about regulating the insurance industry are made, insurance industry spokespersons are quick to blame others for the high cost of malpractice insurance and health care. According to some in the insurance industry, high premiums are merely the result of too any lawsuits and “out of control” medical malpractice payouts. Of course, the problem with that position is that it simply isn’t true. Malpractice insurance and health care costs continue to rise even as lawsuits and payout amounts have declined.

Figures from the National Practitioner Data Bank show that medical malpractice payouts nationwide dropped considerably between 2003, when they neared $5 billion, and 2013, when total payouts were about $3.7 billion. In Illinois, payouts decreased by $28 million from 2012 to 2013, even as Chicago-area providers continue paying some of the highest medical malpractice insurance premiums in the nation. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, medical malpractice insurance has twice the return on net worth for insurance companies that property and casualty insurance has.

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ACT TO PROTECT YOURSELF

Injury victims are not the cause of high insurance premiums, despite insurance companies’ claims that a lawsuit “crisis” is driving up malpractice premiums. Medical malpractice lawsuits are filed by injured people who are the victims of preventable medical errors, and those victims deserve compensation and justice. The way to reduce the number of lawsuits – and in turn to reduce medical malpractice insurance and health care costs – is to prevent medical malpractice. Consumers seeking health care can take some steps to protect themselves. To reduce their own costs, the health care industry is taking measures of its own.

Has your doctor been accused of malpractice in the past? If so, what was the result? One way to find out about your doctor is to check the court records in the county where he or she practices as well as the state medical licensing board and the state department of insurance (you can ask the latter if any claims are on record for the doctor). One malpractice suit alone is probably meaningless – it’s typical for doctors to be sued, and many cases are dismissed or the doctor prevails, so the fact that a doctor has sued isn’t necessarily disqualifying. Most malpractice cases are resolved out-of-court, which means there will be no court records. However, if you find that a doctor has been sued several times, and if any of those suits have resulted in large settlements or awards, you should probably consider a different doctor.

GUIDELINES AND NEW MEASURES

Don’t ignore the suggestions of friends and relatives, either. If someone you trust has relied on the same doctor for twenty or more years, that doctor may be the one you should see. While you’re looking for a doctor, stay healthy, eat right, and get plenty of sleep and exercise. If you are lucky, you may not require more than a check-up. If you do become a victim of medical malpractice, legal help is available. No one likes to be sued, of course, so the health care industry constantly seeks ways to reduce its own insurance costs and to reduce the number of malpractice incidents. A panel of doctors recently published a list of recommendations for medical providers and health care facilities in the New England Journal of Medicine. The doctors insist that hospitals must create guidelines for confronting mistakes and for managing the disclosure of details about malpractice incidents.

Two professors at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine writing in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) advocate the installation of video cameras in every operating room to record medical procedures, deter medical malpractice, and reduce the number of surgical mistakes. Timothy Pawlik and Martin Makary write that video in the O.R. could substantially improve the care of patients, shield hospitals and doctors from dubious allegations, and provide medical students with a superlative tool for learning surgical procedures. In medical negligence claims, video could help determine if malpractice did or did not take place.

IF YOU FILE A MALPRACTICE CLAIM

If the medical profession adopted these and other guidelines, it would dramatically reduce and change medical malpractice litigation and make it easier for victims and families to get justice without acrimonious courtroom battles. If you are injured in an incident of medical malpractice, and if you make the decision to file a medical malpractice lawsuit after consulting with a medical malpractice attorney, keep these facts in mind:

  • A failed medical treatment or procedure does not necessarily mean that medical malpractice has been committed. For malpractice to occur, a health care provider must breach the accepted professional standard of care by acting negligently, irresponsibly, or recklessly.
  • According to polls, doctors and nurses are two of the top most-trusted groups in the United States. If a case leaves jurors with doubts, they will usually give health care professionals the benefit of that doubt.
  • When you explain your case – even to your own attorney – cut to the chase. You should be able to explain quickly and specifically how a doctor or a hospital committed malpractice; otherwise, jurors may not be able to understand your story.
  • Keep comprehensive and accurate records and copies of all insurance and medical documents and paperwork pertinent to your case. If you believe that you are a victim of medical malpractice, obtain a complete set of your medical records as quickly as possible.

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YOU MUST ACT PROMPTLY

You must act promptly if you become a victim of medical malpractice. The “statute of limitations” is the legal term for the deadline you have for filing a medical malpractice lawsuit against a health care provider. An attorney in your own state can tell you what you need to know about statutes of limitations; in Illinois, speak with an experienced Chicago medical malpractice attorney. Medical malpractice claims typically have some of the shortest statute of limitation periods of any kind of lawsuit.

In Illinois, you must start the lawsuit within two years of when you became aware of, or should have become aware of, the medical malpractice or the resulting injury. Regardless of when you discover the injury, there is a limit of four years from when the malpractice occurred. (The exception in Illinois is that if the injured victim was younger than eighteen when the medical malpractice occurred, the statute of limitations is eight years or when the injured person turns twenty-two, whichever comes first.) Don’t wait four years to speak with an attorney, or even two. Evidence deteriorates rapidly, and so do the memories of witnesses. If you’ve been injured by medical malpractice, speak with an experienced medical malpractice attorney immediately.

Over many decades, the work of lawmakers, activists, and medical malpractice attorneys to hold hospitals and physicians responsible when their negligence injures patients has led to substantial improvements in the way medicine is practiced and to the development of more rigorous safety standards that protect patients and prevent negligent acts. That’s the main reason why the number of malpractice cases is declining. Health care and insurance costs should be declining, too.

By: Stephen Phillips

Stephen D. Phillips is the managing partner at the Phillips Law Offices in Chicago. He earned his Juris Doctor from Loyola University in 1985 and his B.A. from the University of Iowa in 1981. He is an extensively published writer and sought-after lecturer on legal topics ranging from medical malpractice to tort reform. Mr. Phillips is also the recipient of a number of awards and honors from various legal and community groups.