Michael Townes Watson

Media Perpetuates “Medical Malpractice” Hoax on Public

For the past six weeks we have heard bits and pieces of the story about Dennis Quaid’s twin babies who received an overdose of medication in the hospital. All of the major networks, magazines and newspapers have published various accounts of the event and its fallout. What is clear from the stories is that the babies got some sort of infection while in the hospital (just like hundreds of thousands of other hospital patients do every year). In order to treat the infection the babies were put on intravenous antibiotics, which required the administration of heparin (a blood-thinning agent) so that clots would not form at the site of the IV. The ultimate nightmare occurred when the wrong vial of heparin was used, and the babies got 100 times the safe dose. Their lives were seriously in danger for many days, and it is still not known if irreparable harm occurred. How can the public hear such a story and still support laws capping damages at levels that undermine the injured patients’ access to the justice system?

The Quaids, and others like them who are hurt by the healthcare system, are not maligned for hiring a lawyer, because the public seems to understand that a wrong was committed. Yet, in the same news cycle, we also hear about the Democratic Presidential race, where John Edwards, a trial lawyer, is in contention for the nomination. Whenever he does get some favorable news recognition above the roar of the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he or his campaign is confronted with some negative question about his background as a trial lawyer.

The media has swallowed, and is still reeling with heartburn over, the acid propaganda promulgated by the insurance industry about trial lawyers. Chris Matthews, who always wants to appear to “know the truth,” blasted Elizabeth Edwards, claiming that John Edwards profession was “running doctors out of Pennsylvania.” He takes this position, despite the fact that the insurance party line was dispelled in Chris Matthews’ own hometown newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, way back in 2004, at the height of what the insurance companies fraudulently labeled as the “malpractice crisis.”

The media has never reported the results of the exhaustive study done by Public Citizen, where the figures from the National Practitioner Databank (federally mandated data on medical malpractice settlements and verdicts) demonstrate that the Malpractice Crisis was a manufactured hoax. See here, where one can read the true statistics—the actual value of payments has been declining; payments correspond to the severity of injury; and that less than one-half of one percent of malpractice awards is for an amount over one million dollars. So, “litigious” patients are not filing lawsuits and getting rich at the expense of the system.

Nor did the media give any attention to the fact that the statistics straight from the American Medical Association demonstrate that physician supply has grown at more than four times the rate of the general population growth. That statistic holds true even for the period of time that the insurance companies were claiming a “malpractice crisis,” and also holds true for the “high-risk” specialties of ob-gyn and neurosurgery.

Why, then, does the media not report these events? It continues to denigrate the justice system for providing remedies to those, like the Quaid family, who simply try to hold accountable a hospital system that kills nearly 200,000 people every year by mistake; or a prescription medication industry that injures 1.5 million people every year. I believe that it is because people do not understand that they, or their loved ones, could easily become the victim.

Most practicing attorneys who handle malpractice cases on behalf of injured victims turn away huge numbers of cases, either because there is not clear proof of malpractice or the injuries sustained are not significant enough to warrant the expense and time of prosecuting a lawsuit. Studies from Harvard School of Public Health have shown that only one in seven malpractice victims even makes a claim. It takes an extremely disabling injury to warrant the tens of thousands (and sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollars necessary for a plaintiff to prosecute a case. That is why the malpractice cases covered by the media tend to have large jury verdicts—the injuries in those cases are severe. The media does not cover the cases where a plaintiff gets an award that does not “shock the public.” Nor does the media report that it sometimes takes many thousands of hours of manpower and hundreds of thousands of dollars for expert witness and court costs to prosecute a case against a pharmaceutical company that has withheld information proving its drug is dangerous.

There is nothing wrong with engaging a debate about how a candidate has made his money, or the profession in which he or she has engaged. We must be careful, however, to avoid reaching conclusions on incomplete or inaccurate (or in the case of the insurance industry, fabricated) data. If the justice system is to be used to do what it was designed for—to dispense justice—it must be judged not on propaganda, hyperbole or scare tactics. It must be judged on the merits of how it performs both in specific cases and by general statistics across the board.

The truth of the data is that malpractice occurs too often, and that the justice system, although costly, is the only adequate remedy for an injured victim. The media should give THAT the coverage that it deserves, rather than promulgating the insurance party line.

Michael Townes Watson, author of America’s Tunnel Vision—How Insurance Companies’ Propaganda Is Corrupting Medicine and Law.

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Posted at 11:19 AM, Jan 17, 2008 in Health Care | Medical Malpratice
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In this case, the lawsuit is interesting in the fact that the company who made the heparin is being sued as well as the hospital. This shows again that these suits are all about going for the big bucks. The other thing that is interesting is that there is no evidence of harm to the children so the suit is about two things, "potential harm" and the "emotional state" of the parents.

So this case is a better example of how to exploit a medical error that so far has resulted in no harm into a large cash payout.

Posted by: throckmorton | January 17, 2008 12:25 PM

What do you mean, there's no evidence of harm to the children? They don't know the extent of the harm that was caused to the children. That's a different thing altogether. "These suits" are about determining who breached a duty of care, not about "big bucks."

It's funny how some people would like to paint huge corporations as the victims here. It's not like we're dealing w/ a mom and pop drugmaker who every Saturday gives out lollipops to the neighborhood kids. If only 10% of this compassion for pharm co's were redirected to victims of medical error, we wouldn't have as skewed a health care debate as we do now.

Posted by: Kia | January 17, 2008 1:05 PM

Throckmorton: If it were your children--do you think that "potential for harm" and not knowing whether they will live or die is something that the parents should just be required to withstand, regardless of the fault of the medical system? AS far as your comment for "going for the big bucks," do you have any idea what it costs to prosecute one of these cases. So, should a lawyer just work for nothing? Do you work for nothing? Do you know why the Quaids did not file a suit against the hospital? Have you any earthy idea what you are talking about? Once before you commented on one of my posts, and I invited a discussion with you, face to face, phone to phone or any other way, and I never heard from you. My website is available, and my contact info is there, if you care to discuss. Or you may simply wish to vent your vituperatives without the need to back them up with reason or logic. The choice is yours. Michael Townes Watson

Posted by: Michael Townes Watson | January 17, 2008 1:25 PM

Heparin is a medication that causes inactivity of the factor Xa thrombin products and as a result causes increased bleeding times. In cases of heparin overdose, the effects are countered with protamine sulfate which was administered in this case. In the reported medical literature there were three premature infants who died of unrecognized heparin overdoses and as a result protamine was not given. There is an additional concern with heparin of thrombocytopenia which occurs immediately and can be determined by a routine blood test. In this case the Quad's attorney stated on CNN that the children show no effects and given the pharmacology of the medication most likely will not. There is then the question that if there is anything different in these children as compared to others, what is due to their infections and their prematurity vs the effects of the heparin?

I am glad to see that my comment seemed to cause such an emotional response as that is part of the problem with these cases. There is emotion, something could have happened as a result of a mistake, the problem is that it appears that nothing did happen. How do you compensate for something that didn't happen? This leads directly into the cost of these cases. If the case is worth taking, then why is it not worth the expense?

I agree wholeheartedly that something needs to change to prevent similiar mistakes. My solution is that we regulate through our legislature and not through the courts. Changing the drug labeling will be a big step but it must be considered that the labels themselves are already regulated.

In terms of my childrens potential to be harmed in regard to the medical system. I worry all the time as I know things can go wrong, just as they can go wrong while driving or in any other occurence. Risk surrounds us. In a critical care situation risk is increased as you generally have something that can kill you to put you there and then you are having to have all the procedures and medications that themselves carry high risk.

Now how to compensate for "what might". How do you determine what adequate compensation should be for this? In terms of other what mights, what else should be compensated? The almost got rear ended on the freeway? the almost slipped on the ice?

As to logic and what I might know, I use heparin every day. As to my comment about the drug company, what is the goal of the suit? If it is not financial why not try for congressional action to change the laws that regulate drug labeling?

Posted by: throckmorton | January 17, 2008 5:04 PM

Eighty percent of medmal cases are weak. The filing of a meritless case is lawyer malpractice. Let's allow innocent defendants to sue plaintiff lawyers and their judges, without caps, with pain and suffering, with exemplary damages. End the ultimate tort reform for lawyers, the litigation privilege. The duties of the lawyer are enumerated in statutes. So most negligence is per se.

What objection could you possibly have?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | January 17, 2008 5:38 PM

Throckmorton: You entirely miss the point. I understand medicine better than you may think, but I am not sure if you understand the concepts of mental anguish and emotional stress. If you have heard the accounts in the media about the Quaid's case that I have heard (granted the media does not always get it right), you heard that, although the children may ultimately be ok, for some time the parents did not know, and even the hospital could not tell them, that the mistake (and it clearly was a mistake) would not kill or injure them, as you admit it has done in some cases. I suppose that if someone rear-ended your wife and your kid had a concussion and was taken to the hospital, that would be ok with you, even if your kid only suffered for a couple of days because the good doctors were able to treat him and make him well. I guess that is just an accepted consequence of a negligent driver.

I suppose that we're supposed to just forget about the mistake, in either case. In reality, a suit is worth pursuing only if there are significant damages. I agree with you that this suit may not be such a case, but the point is, as I said in my first post, that there are hundreds of thousands of injuries in the healthcare system where people are seriously injured, and those cases are not frivolous. If you disagree, you need look no further than the New England Journal of Medicine, which I presume you read. In May of 2006, that Journal published results of studies showing that the vast majority of cases in which a victim is compensated are cases involving real error (as judged by non-testifying, independent medical doctors), and involving significant injury. They also stated that the most significant wasted expense of the court system is money paid to defend cases where real error occured, rather than on cases where error did not occur.

As a matter of fact, if you will read my post, you will see that I only referred to the Quaid case as a point to demonstrate how easy it is for innocent people to become victims. I am not championing cases in which there is not some significant disability sustained. I was only saying that the media should not fail to report both sides of the supposed "Malpractice Crisis."

Posted by: Michael Townes Watson | January 17, 2008 7:14 PM

I agree that the media has to present both sides. To prevent medical errors, it is essential to identify them and then perform process improvement to prevent future errors. Unfortunately, identification of errors and then proess improvement are being impared by the threat of lawsuits. A tradition in medicine is "M&M". These morbitity and mortality conferences purpose was to identify things that went wrong and then find how to prevent it in the future in a public forum to pass ones lessons on to many. These no longer are occuring as hospitals and training institutions see them as ready made lawsuits. As a result, valuable lessons that could be learned are hidden.

A question that I propose is how to be sure that patients are compensated but at the same time regain the passing of knowledge? I personally feel that arbitration agreements may be part of the way where the error must be published as part of a national morbidity and mortality report. In this way medical errors, complications, malpratice and just things that didn't work would be readily available for research, analysis and process improvement. One problem with the NEJM and AJS study was trying to get the data. Bad data gives bad conclusions. Good data will help determine true problems with medications, processess, errors and give us information how to make things better.

I do not think that attorneys are going to fix healthcare and I also do not think physicians are going to fix tort law. I do however believe that both have problems and that we as a nation have to find a way to improve both.

Posted by: throcknorton | January 17, 2008 8:36 PM

"...but I am not sure if you understand the concepts of mental anguish and emotional stress."

Thanks. I forgot that. Lawyers and their pro-rent, biased, lawyer pals on the bench should pay for the years of emotional distress intentionally inflicted on the 80% of medmal civil defendants found innocent after years of undergoing each case.

When it comes to a misuse of a civil procedure, any distress is called the ordinary distress of litigation. The innocent lawsuit abuse victim must prove special damages. Let these sleazeball plaintiffs prove the same. The dirtbag, misleading land pirate always forgets to mention that. In fact, he forgets any accountability for the criminal cult enterprise, whose rancid lying propaganda he peddles.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | January 17, 2008 10:48 PM

When a medical error occurs intially you will not know the long term effects.
We hear a lot more about Tort Reform than we do from the victims of medical errors. Many times those injured are not able to talk because they were put in the position sign this agreement or you will go to court. It's truly tragic that hospitals and insurance companies care so little about the patient injured.
My mother was set on fire during surgery. YES it really happened. She stayed hospitalized for almost two years from her injuries and multiple infections she recieved. I started a website to educate the public and medical community about surgical fires. Please visit my website and learn what to ask before surgery.

Posted by: catherine Reuter | January 22, 2008 2:03 PM

When a medical error occurs intially you will not know the long term effects.
We hear a lot more about Tort Reform than we do from the victims of medical errors. Many times those injured are not able to talk because they were put in the position sign this agreement or you will go to court. It's truly tragic that hospitals and insurance companies care so little about the patient injured.
My mother was set on fire during surgery. YES it really happened. She stayed hospitalized for almost two years from her injuries and multiple infections she recieved. I started a website to educate the public and medical community about surgical fires. Please visit my website and learn what to ask before surgery.

Posted by: catherine Reuter | January 22, 2008 2:05 PM