Medical Liability a Chronic Crisis

February 17, 2011

Washington, DC -- President Obama's federal 2012 budget includes $250 million in grants over the next three years to fund state efforts to overhaul medical liability laws. This proposal authorizes the US Justice Department, in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services, to award grants to states for implementing innovative reform measures such as health courts, "safe harbor" laws, and early disclosure and compensation programs.

"The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has long endorsed measures to make health care safer for patients while also protecting access to the physicians who care for them. The President's proposal is an important step in the right direction toward fostering a reliable system of medical justice and enacting common sense reforms that protect patients, halt lawsuit abuse, and keep doctors in practice," said ACOG President Richard N. Waldman, MD.

"The medical liability situation for ob-gyns remains a chronic crisis and continues to deprive women of all ages—especially pregnant women—of experienced ob-gyns," said Albert L. Strunk, JD, MD, deputy executive vice president of ACOG. According to an ACOG survey, 90% of ob-gyns have been sued at least once during their professional careers. Currently, the average age at which physicians cease practicing obstetrics is 48, an age once considered the midpoint of an ob-gyn's career.

"Women's health care suffers as ob-gyns further decrease obstetric services, reduce gynecologic procedures, and are forced to practice defensive medicine," added Dr. Strunk. The ACOG survey also found:

  • More than 63% of ob-gyns have changed their practice due to the risk or fear of liability claims or litigation.
  • One in 12 obstetricians who have changed their practice has stopped delivering babies.
  • 15% of ob-gyns have decreased gynecologic surgical procedures because of the risk or fear of being sued.
  • Over half of all liability claims against ob-gyns were dropped or settled without payment on behalf of the ob-gyn.

ACOG is fully committed to the enactment of a national law patterned on The HEALTH Act (HR 5) and the Texas and California medical liability reforms. "While ACOG works to attain this goal, we support interim measures and alternatives that address the long delays, excessive costs, and the unpredictability and inequality of compensation in our current system. Successful alternatives could help guarantee that injured patients are compensated fairly and quickly while promoting quality of care and patient safety," said Dr. Waldman.

One alternative in particular which is highlighted in President Obama's budget is health care courts. These special courts would take injury claims out of the adversarial tort system, where facts are often poorly understood, and put them into the hands of experts whose goals are fairness and patient safety. "Health courts would allow for a bench or jury trial presided over by a specially trained judge to exclusively hear medical liability cases. A judge with specialized training would resolve disputes with greater reliability, consistency, and efficiency than would untrained judges or juries and could issue opinions that define standards of care or set legal precedent," noted Dr. Strunk. Other promising alternatives that can make a difference include early offer systems and expert witness qualification programs.

"Without reform of America's broken liability system, women will increasingly find that they cannot get the prenatal and obstetric care they need, and many pregnant women will not be able to find doctors to deliver their babies. Women will lose care that will help protect fertility, end pelvic pain, and detect and treat cancer early," said Dr. Waldman. "Women deserve better."

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (The College), a 501(c)(3) organization, is the nation's leading group of physicians providing health care for women. As a private, voluntary, nonprofit membership organization of approximately 55,000 members, The College strongly advocates for quality health care for women, maintains the highest standards of clinical practice and continuing education of its members, promotes patient education, and increases awareness among its members and the public of the changing issues facing women's health care. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a 501(c)(6) organization, is its companion organization.

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