Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 17, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

MALPRACTICE AWARD....Hey, it's only my first day here and I already have an opportunity to shill for my new employers! The American Society of Magazine Editors has announced the nominees for the 39th annual National Magazine Awards and one of them is Stephanie Mencimer for her terrific article in the October issue of the Washington Monthly, "Malpractice Makes Perfect." Here's an excerpt that tells the story of Dr. Fred Payne:

Payne had been sued a dozen times over the past decade, and had paid out settlements of at least $7.3 million, according to the Charleston Gazette. In 1998, Payne operated to repair a minor spine injury on a spry 76-year-old World War II veteran who had fallen out of a tree. On his way to the operating room, he ran into a medical-equipment salesman who encouraged him to try out a new type of clamp. The patient hadn't consented to the procedure, nor had Payne ever even seen the tool used or studied its use; but he tried it out anyway. After Payne left the hospital, a nurse paged him to let him know that the patient wasn't doing well in recovery. An examination found that the clamp had slipped into the spinal canal and paralyzed the man from the neck down--a hideously worse injury than he had initially sustained. He died a year later. A lawsuit over the case, which charged that the man didn't even need surgery in the first place, was settled for $4.6 million.

The Ohio Valley Medical Center agreed to pay $3.5 million of the settlement, but insisted that Payne was responsible for the rest. But Payne's minimal insurance didn't cover the balance, so the judge on the case, Fred Risovich II, insisted that he use his personal assets to pay his share of the settlement, a rare move in a malpractice case. "The negligence was so gross, and the injury so bad that justice required that he pay something," says Risovich. Payne has not practiced medicine since.

Doctors in Wheeling had not been particularly politically active before this, but they were outraged by the case--not by Payne's behavior, but by Risovich's.

Yes, you read it right. They were upset not at Payne, but at Risovich. Unfortunately, this is par for the course. As the article goes on to say, "Despite evidence of insurance company shenanigans, though, doctors put the blame for their insurance woes on trial lawyers, malpractice suits, and juries." In truth, frivolous lawsuits and runaway juries are only tiny contributors to the genuinely troubling issue of rising malpractice premiums. The real problems lie elsewhere.

"Malpractice Makes Perfect" was a great article last October and it's still a great article. Read the whole thing if you want to understand that there's more to the malpractice "crisis" than urban legends about frivolous lawsuits and greedy lawyers. A lot more.

Kevin Drum 3:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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