Why Medical Malpractice Suits Have Little to Do with Doctor Performance

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A few days ago I wrote about how difficult it is for patients to be empowered consumers. A new study released today provides more evidence that patients are basically in the dark when it comes to knowing how well doctors do their jobs. Performance data for hospitals and doctors is notoriously hard to come by in the public sphere, even though such data is often collected and evaluated by health systems and medical associations.

One way — aside from word of mouth — that patients can now evaluate doctors is by reviewing malpractice claims filed against them. But surprisingly, according to the new study from the Archives of Internal Medicine, there is little connection between the quality of a physician’s performance and his or her history of malpractice claims. Whether a patient decides to sue his or her doctor, in other words, may have little correlation with how well the doctor performs.

Patients opt to sue or not sue for a host of other reasons including, research has shown, if their doctor admits making a mistake and apologizes for it. (Doctors who take responsibility outside a courtroom are less likely to end up in one.) The new study also found that judging a doctor by how long he or she has been practicing is also not a reliable way to judge his or her effectiveness.

The authors note that some health insurance plans evaluate doctors and steer their patients toward those who perform the best. It seems the only players in the health care game without access to physician report cards are patients.