A record number of malpractice suits and large legal judgments are triggering a crisis in health care costs and services, an American Medical Assn. official warned Thursday.
The AMA, which outlined the problem in a new report, said Americans are filing more than three times as many medical malpractice claims than they did a decade ago, and are winning record judgments.
To counteract the trend, the AMA is proposing that organized medicine do a better job of policing the profession to prevent incompetent physicians from practicing, Dr. James H. Sammons, the AMA's executive vice president, said in an interview.
But he emphasized that the overall quality of medical care in the United States is at "its highest level ever."
AMA and insurance industry statistics show that 16 malpractice claims were filed for every 100 doctors in 1983, an increase of nearly 20% over the previous year, the AMA said in the report, "Professional Liability in the 1980s."
As a result, 40% of the AMA members said they often ordered additional diagnostic tests and prescribed additional treatments to protect themselves in the event of malpractice suits.
Sammons said astronomical insurance premiums, which in some cases cost doctors up to $80,000 per year, are increasing costs patients must pay for doctor and hospital services.
"Estimates are that defensive medicine may add anywhere from $15 billion to $40 billion annually to health care costs," the report said.
In 1983, the total amount of liability premiums for doctors in the United States was $1.57 billion. Insurance carriers suffered $2 billion in losses that year because of medical malpractice suits, the AMA report said.
"Physicians have no other money to pay for these bills other than from their practice. This is a crisis of price, not availability," Sammons said. "If the (insurance) prices continue to increase . . . if there are not changes made in tort laws . . . there will be a crisis of availability as well as price."