The Effects of Lengthy Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

When a patient goes to a doctor or hospital, he or she puts their health and well-being in someone else’s hands and expects the best care possible. While this is the case in most situations, unfortunately doctors and healthcare providers can and do make mistakes–this is known as medical malpractice. When these mistakes have devastating or even tragic consequences, patients and family members may feel the need to hold health professionals responsible for their negligence and file a medical malpractice lawsuit. While patients need to have some form of recourse for conduct that falls below the standard of care, the amount of time health professionals spend dealing with medical malpractice lawsuits can affect patients and doctors across the entire industry.

A recent study of the malpractice claims records of more than 40,000 doctors, published in Health Affairs, found that most claims took nearly two full years from the beginning of the lawsuit and nearly four years from the actual event to come to resolution. If a case resulted in payment to a plaintiff or involved more serious patient injuries, the suit often took even longer to resolve. The study also examined how much of a doctor’s career is spent on open claims. The findings showed that an average open claim takes four years of a doctor’s time as he or she works through the lawsuit, with certain specialists, like neurosurgeons, devoting even more of their professional lives to legal issues.

Drawn-out legal battles can have adverse effects on patients as well. A medical malpractice case that successfully creates change in a doctor’s actions, a facility’s philosophy or even throughout the industry can benefit many patients. But if the lawsuit is tied up in court, these improvements are delayed as well. Studies also show that patients would prefer that physicians acknowledge medical errors and apologize for the mistake early in the legal process rather than deal with a lengthy claim that could delay compensation.

Malpractice cases are necessary to guard patients’ health and safety and to ensure that healthcare professionals are held accountable if they do not comply with the standard of care. The Health Affairs study shows that time is an important a factor to consider when evaluating the impact medical malpractice lawsuits can have on all parties involved. It’s clear that lengthy legal battles can have adverse effects on both doctors and patients, and that quicker resolutions would be a benefit to everyone.


New York Times, The Drawn Out Process Of The Medical Malpractice Lawsuit, 1-24-13