Medical malpractice awards not linked to premiums

By Kim Dixon

Medical malpractice awards are rising in line with health care costs and are not likely the main driver of soaring malpractice premiums as portrayed by many doctors, a study suggested on Tuesday.

The data analysis of 184,500 malpractice payments from 1991 through 2003 from a national data bank was published in the journal Health Affairs, dated June 1.

It found that the cases that get the most publicity -- like botched caesarian births or operation on a wrong body part -- are a fraction of all malpractice awards.

In fact, most cases are settled out of court, and growth in the top 10 percent of all payments is smaller than the average payment.

"Premiums are going up for doctors and that is why they are up in arms, but there is a very weak link between the increase in payments (for malpractice cases) and premiums," said Amitabh Chandra, a professor and economist at Dartmouth University, and an author of the study.

Malpractice payments from settlements and juries increased 4 percent per year from 1991 to 2003, the report found, in line with the average overall increase in the cost of healthcare, the authors said.

The American Medical Association, the nation's doctor lobby, has made capping medical malpractice awards its main priority in recent years, with backing from the Bush Administration.

Doctors blame high-profile jury awards on double-digit growth in medical malpractice insurance premiums and want a $250,000 cap on jury awards.

Data from the analysis excludes payments made by hospitals in cases where a doctor is dropped as part of a settlement.

A slew of states have capped jury awards in medical malpractice cases, and that appears to be driving doctors to those states, a separate study found.