Special Communication
November 26, 2014

The Medical Liability Climate and Prospects for Reform

Author Affiliations
  • 1Stanford Law School, Stanford, California
  • 2Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California
  • 3Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

Copyright 2014 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA. 2014;312(20):2146-2155. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.10705

For many physicians, the prospect of being sued for medical malpractice is a singularly disturbing aspect of modern clinical practice. State legislatures have enacted tort reforms, such as caps on damages, in an effort to reduce the volume and costs of malpractice litigation. Attempts to introduce similar traditional reform measures at the federal level have so far failed. Much less prominent, but potentially more important, are proposed alternative approaches for resolving medical injuries; a number of these efforts are currently being tested in federally sponsored demonstration projects. These nontraditional reforms have considerable promise for addressing some of the system’s most challenging issues, including high costs and barriers to accessing compensation. In this Special Communication, we review recent national trends in medical liability claims and costs, which indicate a sharp reduction in the rate of paid claims and flat or declining levels in compensation payments and liability insurance costs over the last 7 to 10 years. We discuss a number of nontraditional reform approaches—communication-and-resolution programs, presuit notification and apology laws, safe harbor legislation, judge-directed negotiation, and administrative compensation systems—and we conclude by describing several forces likely to shape change in the medical liability environment over the next decade.