Mass. Malpractice Frequency Down But Payouts Way Up

November 18, 2004

The number of medical malpractice payments made by Massachusetts doctors peaked in 2001 and has begun to gradually decline, while the average size of those payments continues to soar, according to a new government report.

From 1994 to 2001 the number of annual malpractice payments made by Bay State doctors to patients grew by about 47 percent, from 225 to 332, according to the report by the state Board of Registration in Medicine. But since that high, the number of payments has fallen to 276 last year.

The drop appears to have done little to keep malpractice payouts down. The size of each payment soared from an average of $251,760 in 1994 to $431,061 in 2003.

The total amount paid to settle malpractice claims each year in Massachusetts has also risen dramatically in the past decade, from $64.2 million paid out in 1994 to $118.9 million last year.

The authors of the report highlighted the drop in the number of payments.

“We hope that is the start of a trend,” said Russell Aims, spokesman for Board of Registration in Medicine.

But the report warns that the drop could be a statistical blip.

“(The) upward trend in the number of malpractice suits, percentage of physicians sued and size of malpractice payments over the last 10 years is not sustainable in the long term if the health care system in Massachusetts is to remain viable,” the report said.

Alan Pierce, president of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, declined to comment on the report until he had a chance to read it. Frank Fortin, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Medical Society, which represents physicians, did not immediately return a call.

The report also found that certain specialties generate a disproportionate number of malpractice suits and payments. In many of those specialties — including obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedic surgery and neurological surgery — a higher than average percentage of physicians make malpractice payments.

The report found a silver lining in all the statistics — the relative rarity of medical malpractice payments. From 1994 to 2003 only 6.7 percent of all physicians in Massachusetts made a malpractice payment.

The report also made a series of recommendations, including:

• Creating a central physician data repository for information about Massachusetts doctors including information about malpractice cases;

• Creating a system to identify doctors identified as having potentially substandard skills before any potential patient harm or a malpractice payment might occur;

• Creating a system to help boost the skills of doctors who have been identified as having substandard skills;

• Creating professional training sessions to help doctors improve their communication skills with patients.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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