For consumers of healthcare services, safety is the top priority. Likewise, one aim of tort law is to create incentives to improve safety. If healthcare providers profit from unsafe practices, they are likely to continue. Tort law imposes a tax on unsafe practices that acts as a disincentive. The Center for Disease Control’s recent National and State Healthcare-associated Infections Standardized Infection Ratio Report shows that financial disincentives work to improve healthcare.
The CDC report proves that since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stopped paying for costs associated with avoidable hospital infections, hospitals have focused attention on reducing the infections. So far, there has been a documented 32% decrease in the incidence of bloodstream infections related to central line insertion in hospital patients. Still not convinced that hospitals rely on economic incentives to guide safety? The CDC also found that while hospitals spent more time trying to prevent infections that CMS will not pay for, they spent less time trying to prevent other infections that were not targeted by CMS.
Financial incentives have had a positive impact in other areas of healthcare as well. Several years ago, anesthesiologists had the highest malpractice premiums of any specialty of medicine. Their national organization focused efforts on quality assurance by creating practice guidelines and training regimens to improve the safety of anesthesiology. The result was better outcomes for patients and fewer malpractice claims. Now, anesthesiologists enjoy some of the lowest premiums of any medical specialty.
For consumers of healthcare services, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Patients would obviously rather receive safe care than resort to a claim for medical malpractice. That being said, it is important to understand that tort claims not only serve to compensate patients who receive unsafe care and sustain injury as a result, but also discourage hospitals and physicians from repeating costly mistakes. For those injured patients who say “we aren’t the type that sue,” be sure to add “… and it doesn’t matter to us if this happens to someone else.” On the other hand, those courageous patients who fight back make healthcare safer for all of us.