The Pennsylvania Supreme Court instituted systematic tracking and material rule changes a decade ago to, in the words of Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, "address concern over medical malpractice litigation."
Those changes were pushed for and heartily lauded by doctors and medical administrators, who claimed that escalating litigation owing to alleged acts of hospital negligence, surgical error and other medical mistakes was driving up medical costs for professionals and consumers alike.
In response, the state Supreme Court enacted two significant rule changes in 2003. First, plaintiffs' attorneys were required to obtain a "certificate of merit" from a medical professional stating that a would-be case involved medical procedures -- in other words, a doctor's prescribed treatment or actions -- that strayed beyond acceptable professional standards. Second, and going forward, a medical malpractice suit could only be brought in the county where the alleged malpractice occurred.
The changes yielded stark and notable results. When compared to the analyzed "base years" of 2000-2002, malpractice lawsuits since then have fallen more than 44 percent in Pennsylvania overall and by more than 65 percent in Philadelphia.
Moreover, jury verdicts fell markedly by 2011, with more than 70 percent of them being for the defense.
Advocates of such outcomes -- chiefly medical administrators, hospitals and doctors -- are understandably happy, given that their liability has lessened and their shield against allegations of harm and error has been strengthened.
There are two sides to the equation, though, with the other being the Pennsylvania patients who are either injured or killed by medical errors.
The changes enacted have unquestionably made it more difficult to bring medical malpractice lawsuits in Pennsylvania than was the case in former years. The clear beneficiary of that is the medical profession, and an equally clear result is that the door to the courthouse has been pushed further closed to harmed litigants seeking a remedy. Additionally, fewer suits means a dimmed spotlight on actual medical error and doctor negligence.
Is that a good thing?
Source: Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, "Medical malpractice data levels off as Court rules yield results," Art Heinz, May 7, 2012