Medical malpractice lawsuits can be controversial. Doctors must be able to think and act quickly, using their expertise and experience to make decisions under pressure. However, the responsibility and authority they are given must be balanced with accountability.

According to a recent study, between 210,000 and 440,000 patients die each year from preventable hospital errors. That makes medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America behind heart disease and cancer.

These estimates were developed by John T. James, a toxicologist who runs an advocacy organization called Patient Safety America. James’ study examined the medical records of more than 4,200 patients hospitalized between 2002 and 2008. He found serious adverse events in as many as 21 percent of the cases. Rates of lethal adverse events were as high as 1.4 percent. His numbers were much higher than earlier estimates in 1999 and 2010, which were 98,000 and 180,000, respectively.

The American Hospital Association rejects James’ numbers. Ironically, they believe the true number is closer to that reported in 1999 by the Institute of Medicine, even though the authors have already abandoned it. Dr. Lucian Leape, a Harvard pediatrician who was on the committee of people that authored the 1999 report, told ProPublica that he has confidence in the new estimate by James. According to Leape, the members of the Institute of Medicine knew at the time that their estimates of hospital errors were low.

Medical Malpractice Cases

The number of hospital errors, on the low or high end, is very disproportionate to the number of medical malpractice cases. People have been led to believe that there are hundreds of medical malpractice lawsuits and only a minority of legitimate medical errors. This misconception causes them to perceive medical malpractice lawsuits to be frivolous and tenuous.

In reality, the opposite is true. According to the National Practitioner Data Bank 2006 Annual Report, the number of medical malpractice lawsuits per year varies from about 15,000 and 19,000.

The same misconception that causes people to be critical of medical malpractice can lead others to believe that any error during treatment warrants a medical malpractice case. This is also false. Medical malpractice lawsuits are among the most difficult to pursue. They require proof that (1) an injury occurred, (2) the medical staff acted negligently by deviating from the standard of care, and (3) the negligent act directly caused the injury.

Medical malpractice lawsuits are also very expensive (which is why we work on a contingency fee basis). Thus, for a medical malpractice case to meet our criteria for success, the severity of injury must warrant the significant expenditure associated with a medical malpractice lawsuit. In general, an injury must be catastrophic and/or permanent in order to meet the criteria.

Some incidents involving medical malpractice are easy to identify, such as the case involving 17-year-old Jesica Santillan. Santillan died after doctors performed a transplant using organs with the wrong blood type. There have also been reports of doctors amputating the wrong leg, performing surgery on the wrong patient, and many more unbelievable mistakes. Most, however, are more disputable and require extensive expert review and testimony.

Many procedures or treatments come with inherent risk of certain complications. Even if they are, to an extent, preventable, lawsuits arising from them do not have a high likelihood of success. This is even truer of procedures or treatments that are elective and/or extremely complex.

There is already a large gap between the number of medical errors and the number of medical malpractice lawsuits. As University of Pennsylvania law professor Tom Baker put it in his book The Medical Malpractice Myth, “We have an epidemic of medical malpractice, not of medical malpractice lawsuits.” Holding doctors accountable after an injury or death is one way of promoting safety, but the problem is larger than that. No matter which study you go by, the statistics from the past 15 years expose a crisis that demands attention from more than just the victims of negligence and their families. Minimizing the number of medical errors must start with understanding why common mistakes are happening, developing prevention strategies, and implementing change.