The Medical Malpractice Myth

Throughout the medical malpractice crisis, leading newspapers carried accounts of other obvious medical mistakes. Like the L.A. Times piece on Jesica and Jeanella, the accounts often linked the particular mistakes to the larger story about the extent of medical malpractice in U.S. health care. The report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, To Err Is Human, was a common source. That report summarized research showing that nearly 100,000 people die in the United States each year from medical mistakes—more than die from automobile and workplace accidents combined.

Because of that research and reporting, public opinion is coming around to the view that, distressingly, Jesica’s and Jeanella’s problems are not unique; our health care system has a serious medical-injury problem. But at the same time, public opinion remains firmly anchored to the view that we have an explosion of what President George W. Bush calls “junk lawsuits” and that medical malpractice lawsuits contribute significantly to the high cost of health care in the United States.

Stories like Jesica’s and Jeanella’s helped shift public opinion about medical malpractice only because they were linked to research and reporting that reframed medical malpractice as a public health problem. But their stories did not shift public opinion about medical malpractice lawsuits, because they were not linked to research and reporting that reframed malpractice lawsuits as a public good.

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