A recent spate of publicity about exceedingly large medical malpractice awards* is emotionally jarring, but distressed health care providers should note that such awards are extremely unusual.

A recent analysis of CRICO’s national Comparative Benchmarking System (CBS)—which represents 30 percent of malpractice filings across the United States—shows that for every 1,000 cases closed, just four involved payments in excess of $3 million.

While errors in the process of delivering health care are not uncommon, a formal allegation of negligence is rare. Annually, the U.S. averages about 30,000 malpractice filings stemming from more than two billion physician-patient encounters. And in 70 percent of the cases that are brought forward, clinical experts determine that the plaintiff's damages were not caused by substandard care—leading to those cases being dropped, denied, or dismissed (i.e., closed with no indemnity payment).

For the cases in the CBS study that did result in a payment, 93 percent involved an award or settlement of less than $1,000,000; 99 percent closed for under $3,000,000. Of course, extraordinary awards do draw media attention (which routinely ignores the fact that they are often significantly reduced by judicial intervention) and trigger introspection amongst clinicians suddenly feeling extra vulnerable.

Certainly, some large awards stem from systems failures that demand immediate attention and long term plans to ensure the risk of preventable harm has been addressed. Non-involved individuals and organizations who wonder “could that happen here?” are wise to go through some assessments, and, if necessary, proactive risk reduction efforts. Astute health care leaders, however, will also look beyond the headlines to determine if the underlying issues are unique to that event or if they represent a common systemic risk.

From a patient safety perspective, the heightened awareness sparked by a large award can be harnessed to address related concerns. But it is also often more prudent to study a cluster of “typical” adverse events that share contributing factors than it is to align improvement efforts entirely with a singular, outlier event. Broad and dynamic insight to the types of events that have led to malpractice allegations in your work environment—and the ability to compare your experiences to peers—is more likely to guide appropriate allocation of patient safety resources than is relying on headlines.

*Recent Large-award Cases in the News

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