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Is malpractice immunity for doctors a good idea? Not for victims.

Any time people talk about rising healthcare costs, the conversation often turns into a debate about tort reform. On one side of the argument are those who believe doctors need to be held accountable when they make mistakes. After all, how can victims of medical malpractice be expected to move forward with their lives if they are unable to seek damages for their injuries?

Conversely, those on the other side of the debate often believe that malpractice insurance is driving up healthcare costs, which is why malpractice victims should have their damages capped. Some even believe that doctors should have immunity from medical malpractice lawsuits altogether -- a proposition that was tested in a recently released study.

Doctor immunity won't increase safety for all patients

This study, which was published in the journal, Health Management, Policy and Innovation (HMPI), examined the incidence rates of serious patient harm in two hospitals. At one of the hospitals, the doctors were protected from malpractice lawsuits by sovereign immunity, while doctors at the other hospital did not have such protection, meaning they could be subject to malpractice claims.

While this study emphasized how the incidence rate of harmful events declined overall at the hospital in which doctors had immunity, it also found that the other hospital experienced a similar decline. Stated another way, it found that giving doctors immunity from legal liability in one hospital did not necessarily make overall patient safety any better than in the second hospital.

In addition, while the rate of harmful cases ended up being similar between the two hospitals during the last year of the study, it is worth mentioning that there were times in previous years in which the immunity hospital had a significantly higher rate of harmful cases.

So why should we take away the legal rights of malpractice victims if it doesn't make things safer for patients overall? The fact is, regardless of whether doctors have immunity or not, some are still going to make mistakes from time to time -- and patients are going to suffer, or possibly die, as a result.

Are we supposed to simply tell these victims that their doctors can't be held liable even though they made big mistakes? A "sorry" just doesn't cut it when you are looking at years of additional medical treatment at considerable expense. Simply put, giving doctors immunity from malpractice lawsuits will hurt one group more than any other -- namely, the victims who suffer due to doctor negligence.

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