does decline in medical malpractice cases suggest fewer errors

Anytime you’re looking at statistics, it’s important to look at all the data. In some situations, what may seem like an obvious conclusion after looking at the numbers may not actually reflect what is happening.

For example, according to recent statistics, the number of medical malpractice filings in Pennsylvania has leveled off after a six-year decline. Because the statistics show that the number of medical malpractice cases being filed have declined, you might assume that the number of medical errors has also declined in the past six years. But is that conclusion correct?

Probably not.

The research director at the Public Citizen’s Congress Watch questioned whether the medical treatment that individuals in Pittsburgh are receiving is actually getting better. The director said that there are numerous medical errors that need to be addressed and added, “Fixing the problem of medical errors will do more…than all these efforts to suppress litigation.”

The downward trend of filing medical malpractice cases in Pennsylvania is on par with the national average. However, there may be a slightly different reason for the local change. Many states have caps on the malpractice awards that victims can receive. In those states, lawyers and victims may feel discouraged about filing a case if they don’t think they’ll receive the compensation they deserve.

Pennsylvania does not cap compensatory damages in medical malpractice cases, which helps ensure victims are allowed to receive the settlements they deserve — if they file medical malpractice cases.

The chief justice of Pennsylvania attributes the declining number of cases to the changes made by the state Supreme Court in 2003. Under the changed rulings, medical malpractice attorneys must obtain a certificate that shows that the medical procedure in the case fell outside of acceptable professional standards. In addition, cases can only be filed in the county where the cause of action takes place.

Although these changes sound reasonable, are they? If the result was to decrease the number of lawsuits filed while the rate of medical error stayed the same or increased, is that a victory? And if so, for whom? Certainly not for the victims and their families.

Regardless of whether the rate of medical error increases or decreases, the fact remains that even a single life altered or cut short due to negligence is too many. Lives aren’t torn apart by statistics and families don’t mourn percentages or error rates. In the end, the victims of medical malpractice are not numbers — they are real people with real lives that may never be the same due to the negligent error of a medical professional or health care facility.

So in this situation, a decline in the number of medical malpractice lawsuits is not a victory. The only victories in medical malpractice are found in making the necessary changes to prevent errors from happening in the first place and obtaining justice for the innocent victims.

In many cases, legal action is the only way these real victories can be achieved.

Source:, “Medical Malpractice Claims Hold Steady Across Pennsylvania,” May 8, 2012

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