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A recent study published in the public policy journal Health Affairs provides important information about the costs of medical malpractice litigation and defensive medicine in comparison to the total cost of U.S. health care. Several researchers from Harvard University authored the study, which reveals that the medical liability system, a vital means for holding health care professionals accountable to accepted standards, amounts to only 2.4 percent of American health care expenditures.

In light of Health and Human Services (HHS) data showing that we spent $7,681 per person in 2008 on health care, the Harvard study results suggest that only $185 of that amount goes toward malpractice insurance, "defensive" medical tests, legal costs, and the verdicts and settlements paid to patients. Contrary to the negative attention that litigation received during the recent national health care dialogue, this figure seems surprisingly modest given what Americans pay for other hedges against risk, such as car, home and life insurance.

"Physician and insurer groups like to collapse all conversations about cost growth in health care to malpractice reform," said Amitabh Chandra, one of the authors and a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He claims that the study demonstrates that such simplifications are wrong, pointing out that "the amount of defensive medicine is not trivial, but it’s unlikely to be a source of significant savings." Notably, when further breaking down the components of the medical liability system, the study suggests that the cost of medical malpractice lawsuits alone is well below one percent of the $55.6 billion spent on health care in the U.S. in 2008.

Complex Legal Matters

Medical malpractice claims can be based on a variety of circumstances, from a surgeon’s failure to fully disclose the risks of a procedure to medication errors caused by inattention to infections caused by a hospital’s failure to implement proper sanitary protocols. When a hospital board refuses to support policies that can reduce the potential for harm to patients, legal action can inspire them to consider the broader economic impact of their choices.

For patients or surviving family members who have questions about the treatment they or a loved one received, a consultation with a medical malpractice law firm can address their most pressing concerns. An experienced trial lawyer can also help them assess their prospects for recovery of damages. By handling these cases on a contingency fee basis, medical negligence attorneys can provide access to dedicated counsel and other legal resources without imposing prohibitive upfront costs on their clients.