Medical Malpractice And Car Accidents: A Tale Of Two Public Health Problems

DoctorCar.jpgIn 2009, 33,963 Americans died in car accidents. 100,000 Americans are killed each year by medical errors. Given the large number of lives lost to both medical malpractice and car accidents, both qualify as important public health problems. But while we are making strides in reducing the number of lives lost in car accidents, a recent study shows the number of deaths due to medical errors has held steady over the past decade. The divergent outcomes in these two areas may be due to the different approaches we take with respect to curbing car accidents and medical malpractice deaths.
From 2005-2008, the number of traffic deaths declined twenty-two percent. What explains this precipitous drop? As reported last week by The Wall Street Journal, researchers at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute think they have some of the answers. They chalk up the decline of car accident deaths to a combination of factors, most notably improved safety technology, more aggressive treatment of drunk drivers and stricter licensing requirements for teens.
When you look more closely at some of these factors – improved safety technology, aggressive prosecution of drunk drivers – they are largely the result of government regulation and resort to our court systems. Many car safety improvements are the result of government mandates and product liability litigation. And harsher treatment of drunk driving requires that our courts have more involvement in our lives.
While traffic deaths due to certain factors – such as distracted driving – are climbing steadily, we can see the way that society is dealing with that threat: we are passing more and more laws banning texting while driving or talking on the phone and driving. In short, when it comes to car accident deaths, we are not afraid to unleash the legal system to address problems.
But we seem to be doing the exact opposite when it comes to medical errors. We have lax regulation of medical technology, which leads to the problems you see here, here, here and here.
And instead of holding doctors legally accountable for medical malpractice, the tort reformers have us passing caps on pain-and-suffering in medical malpractice cases, caps that have virtually eliminated lawsuits against doctors in many states. Are insurance companies really going to insist that doctors implement error-avoidance technologies when the insurance have to shell out so little even in the minority of lawsuits where patients are successful?
The decline in traffic deaths that we’ve seen over the past several years is probably attributable to a lot of things – including people not being able to afford gas and therefore driving less. But the long-term graph of traffic deaths is clearly trending downward. And perhaps there’s a public health lesson in that.

This blog is maintained by the Boston medical malpractice lawyers at The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C. The blog neither contains nor offers legal advice.