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February 28, 2005
Further views of Prof. Sage
In the same piece from Sunday's Times (sourced in large measure, on the face of it, by the malpractice bar, not that there's anything wrong with that) Prof. William Sage of Columbia is quoted as saying that while scholars agree that caps would reduce doctors' insurance costs, "there is a universal consensus that caps would do absolutely nothing to reduce medical errors or to compensate injured patients. If anything, caps on damages would make those problems worse."
That's a pithy sound bite, but it's rather misleading as regards the problem of "medical errors". Advocates of damage limits have adduced considerable evidence that the prospect of unlimited liability can seriously compromise the quality of medicine by 1) curtailing providers' availability and 2) encouraging resort to defensive medicine. If trauma centers and rural ob/gyns close their doors, and if doctors prescribe unnecessary antibiotics, CAT scans and caesarean sections for fear they will be blamed if something goes wrong, the number of "medical errors" may not be higher (depending on how those are defined), but the quality of care will nonetheless have suffered. Assuming for the sake of argument that damage caps reduce doctors' incentive to be careful, the question then becomes whether this effect outweighs or does not outweigh the benefits to the quality of patient care of improving availability and reducing the scope of defensive medicine. Notwithstanding the conclusion to which a casual reader might jump from Prof. Sage's comments, there is assuredly no "universal consensus" as to where this balance comes out.
Posted by Walter Olson at 03:56 PM
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Medicine and Law