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Harvard study looks at malpractice cases

Cambridge, Mass. — A team of researchers at Harvard University has concluded a study that affirms what critics of the medical malpractice system have been saying for years: frivolous litigation — claims that lack evidence of injury, substandard care, or both — is both common and costly.

The researcher group, comprised mainly of physicians, reviewed a random sample of 1,452 malpractice claims from five liability insurers to determine whether a medical injury had occurred and, if so, whether it was due to medical error. The group analyzed the prevalence, characteristics, litigation outcomes and costs of claims that lacked evidence of error.

The study found that for three percent of the claims, there were no verifiable medical injuries, and that 37 percent of the claims did not involve errors. When claims not involving errors were compensated, payments were significantly lower on average than were payments for claims involving errors ($313,205 and $521,560, respectively). Overall, claims not involving errors accounted for 13 to 16 percent of the system’s total monetary costs. For every dollar spent on compensation, 54 cents went to administrative expenses (including those involving lawyers, experts and courts). Claims involving errors accounted for 78 percent of total administrative costs.

The study concludes that claims lacking evidence of error are not uncommon, but that most are denied compensation; that the vast majority of expenditures go toward litigation over errors and payment of them; and that the overhead costs of malpractice litigation are exorbitant.

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