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Malpractice analysis surprises lawmakers
Legislative subcommittee hears report on medical malpractice in Virginia

Date published: 11/1/2005

By JIM HALL

RICHMOND--The doctors at the top of the list were not the ones that the legislators expected to see.

Thoracic surgeons, dermatologists and gastroenterologists were the medical specialists who paid the highest average malpractice claims, according to a new state study.

Further down the list were the doctors who paid the highest malpractice insurance premiums: neurosurgeons, ER physicians and ob/gyn surgeons.

"This runs totally counter what we're hearing," said Del. Clifford L. Athey Jr.

The ranking of medical specialities by claims paid was part of a State Corporation Commission report delivered yesterday to the Joint Subcommittee Studying Risk Management Plans for Physicians and Hospitals.

Committee members heard from Eric Lowe, one of the state's insurance analysts, on the 4,034 malpractice claims that Virginia insurance companies closed in a recent three-year period. The data are part of a mandatory accounting that Virginia companies must now file with the State Corporation Commission. The first report was due Sept. 1 and covered the period 2002 through 2004.

The report shows that three-fourths of all malpractice claims closed against Virginia health providers during the reporting period were closed without a payment.

When claims were paid--about 330 each year--the payments averaged $220,000. About half of the paid claims were for less than $100,000, Lowe added.

These two aspects of Lowe's report bothered Athey, a Republican delegate who represents parts of Fauquier, Frederick and Warren counties.

If most of the people who filed claims against doctors received no money, and those who did receive money received less than $100,000, these claims "probably shouldn't have been brought in the first place," Athey said.

But Lowe cautioned that the data are limited. "You can't infer anything" about the worthiness of the claim from the report, he said.

Lowe also cautioned Athey about drawing too many conclusions from the ranking of specialties by claims paid.

Certain low-risk specialities, like dermatology, paid higher claims than high-risk doctors, such as obstetricians.

One possible reason is that when a dermatologist fails to diagnose a melanoma, the harm to the patient can be substantial, said Bevin R. Alexander, representing the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys.

These patients can document substantial medical expenses and lost wages, he said.

"When something goes wrong, it goes badly wrong," Alexander said.

But Lowe cautioned that only three claims were paid for dermatologists during the reporting period.

"I just don't want anybody to jump to too many conclusions from this," Lowe said. "It's not a lot of data for some of these specialities."

The meeting was the subcommittee's third. Sen. Stephen D. Newman, the chairman, said he expected the group to meet once more before drafting legislative changes for the General Assembly to consider during its 2006 session. These changes could include continuing education for judges and the creation of a medical court to consider malpractice claims, said Newman, a Lynchburg Republican.

To reach JIM HALL: 540/374-5433 jhall@freelancestar.com