Medical Malpractice Claims are Decreasing in Washington State, But the Payouts are Getting Larger
Every year in Washington state, hundreds of malpractice claims are filed against healthcare providers and organizations for medical errors and wrongdoing. However, according to recent data, the number of these malpractice claims have been declining over the past decade.
An analysis of the 2015 and 2020 Medical Malpractice Annual Reports, released by the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner, found that the number of closed medical malpractice claims in the state fell by 28% between 2010 and 2019. Interestingly, even with fewer claims, the total amount paid by insurance companies nearly doubled during this period. These findings mirror a nationwide trend of decreasing claims and increasing payouts for medical malpractice claims.
Overall Claims and Payment Trends
In 2019, 669 medical malpractice claims were closed in Washington state, down from the 10-year high of 1,206 claims in 2011[KGR1] . Each year, nearly half of all claims resulted in settlements or damage payouts. However, even with the drop in claims year-over-year, insurers still paid more in settlements and damages in 2019 compared to 2010. Over the 10-year period, the average insurance payout nearly tripled from $213,000 in 2010 to $625,000 in 2019.
Types of Malpractice Allegations
The data showed that between 2015 and 2019, 41% of malpractice allegations made against healthcare providers were for “error or improper performance.” These types of allegations included mistakes such as using an improper medical technique, giving the wrong medication, or leaving a surgical instrument or foreign body inside a patient during a procedure. Another quarter of claims were for behavioral/ legal misconduct, which includes supervisors being held responsible for subordinates’ errors, failure to ensure patient safety, or sexual misconduct.
Additionally, nearly a fifth of malpractice claims alleged that the healthcare provider failed to diagnose, treat, or monitor a medical condition. Overall, the number of claims for all allegation categories decreased between 2010-2014 and 2015-2019.
Most alleged malpractice incidents occurred in either a hospital or a medical practice setting. Operating rooms were the most common place for alleged malpractice incidents, accounting for 24% of all claims between 2015 and 2019. Although most healthcare locations saw a decrease in malpractice claims between 2010-2014 and 2015-2019, labor and delivery rooms actually saw a 26% increase in malpractice complaints.
About half of all malpractice allegations were against a physician, with those in emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and general/ family practice receiving the most complaints between 2015 and 2019. While nearly all physician specialties saw a decline in malpractice claims, neurosurgeons saw a 75% increase between 2010-2014 and 2015-2019.
According to the data, patients injured in medical malpractice incidents were more likely to be women. Interestingly, between 2015 and 2019, insurers paid out more for claims with injured men than for those with injured women, even though injured women had more claims. Between 2010-2014 and 2015-2019, the average payout for injured men more than doubled. Of patients who were injured in a malpractice incident, most sustained temporary injuries (42% of all claims). However, 1 out of 6 claims stated that the malpractice incident had resulted in death.
Why the Drop in Claims?
Although there is not a definitive answer to why medical malpractice cases have fallen in Washington state and elsewhere, possibilities could include improvements in care quality and reforms to personal injury law. For example, many states have placed caps on how much compensation an injured person can receive in a malpractice lawsuit.
However, Washington state does not currently have any limits on malpractice damage compensation. Another possible explanation could be that over time, malpractice cases have become more expensive to litigate, and harder to win. This theory could help explain why total payouts have increased despite decreasing claims, as the stronger cases are more likely to generate larger compensation sums.
[KGR1]Possible graphic showing the downward trend