Transcript: January 25, 2013

JEFF GREENFIELD: WELCOME TO NEED TO KNOW. THANKS FOR WATCHING. IN THE LIST OF THE DILEMMAS AMERICA FACES, THE COST OF HEALTH CARE IS RIGHT AT THE TOP. ONE OF EVERY SIX DOLLARS IN OUR NATIONAL ECONOMY GOES TO HEALTH CARE, AND THE PROJECTIONS FOR THE FUTURE ALL POINT IN ONE DIRECTION–STRAIGHT UP. THE CAUSES ARE VARIED: THE AGING OF THE POPULATION, THE COST OF NEW DRUGS AND MACHINES, THE MASSIVELY INEFFICIENT DELIVERY OF HEALTH CARE.

BUT THERE’S ANOTHER POTENTIAL CAUSE: THE WAY WE DEAL WITH ALLEGATIONS OF MEDICAL MALPRACTICE. EVERY YEAR, ONE IN 14 DOCTORS WILL BE SUED FOR MALPRACTICE; AND A SURVEY BY THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION FOUND THAT MORE THAN 60% OF DOCTORS OVER THE AGE OF 55 HAVE BEEN SUED AT LEAST ONCE. MOST LAWSUITS WILL BE DISMISSED, OR RESOLVED IN FAVOR OF THE DOCTOR; BUT THE COST OF INSURING AGAINST SUCH SUITS CAN BE HUGE–EVEN TO THE POINT OF DRIVING SOME PHYSICIANS OUT OF THE PROFESSION ENTIRELY. AND YET, AT THE SAME TIME, THE GREAT MAJORITY OF PATIENTS WHO SUFFER INJURY FROM MALPRACTICE, NEVER RECEIVE ANY COMPENSATION FOR WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THEM.

THE NON-PROFIT, NON-PARTISAN ADVOCACY GROUP, COMMON GOOD, JOINED FORCES WITH US TO LOOK AT THIS PROBLEM, AND TO EXPLORE POSSIBLE ANSWERS. THEY HELPED SECURE FUNDING FOR THIS WEEK’S “NEED TO KNOW.” IN RETURN, WE PROMISED THEM NOTHING MORE THAN WHAT WE PROMISE YOU–TO EXAMINE THEIR IDEAS, AND TO REPORT ON WHAT WE FOUND. SO TONIGHT, WE BEGIN WITH AN ATTEMPT TO ANSWER ONE KEY QUESTION: WHAT DOES OUR MEDICAL MALPRACTICE SYSTEM COST US?

JEFF GREENFIELD: TAKE A LOOK AT TWO SCENES FROM THE DEBATE OVER MEDICAL MALPRACTICE. SCENE ONE: A DISTINGUISHED CARDIAC SURGEON, RON BECKER, PASSING TIME AT HIS HOME IN CARMICHAEL, CALIFORNIA.

JEFF GREENFIELD: A FEW YEARS AGO, BECKER DECIDED TO TAKE A BREAK FROM PRACTICING MEDICINE FULL TIME TO CARE FOR HIS TWO YOUNG CHILDREN. BUT HE’D STILL LIKE TO BE WORKING PART TIME, PROVIDING MEDICAL CARE TO THE NEEDY FOR FREE. SO WHY ISN’T HE?

Becker: I would still need malpractice insurance. And in California, that would cost me about $40,000 a year.

JEFF GREENFIELD: BECKER SAYS THAT $40,000 WOULD AMOUNT TO MORE THAN 30% OF HIS CURRENT INCOME, MOSTLY FROM PENSIONS AND SOCIAL SECURITY.

Becker: I’m not gonna take a $40,000 hit to my income just so I can volunteer.

JEFF GREENFIELD: SCENE TWO. 130 MILES TO THE SOUTH IN SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA, SONIA NUNEZ CARES FOR HER DISABLED SON BRANDON. BRANDON’S BIRTH WAS TROUBLED AND EMERGENCY CARE CAME LATE.

Sonia Nunez: I saw my husband and he was, you know, walking around. And I’m telling him, what’s going on? He didn’t want to tell me but I just knew right away that something was wrong.

JEFF GREENFIELD: AFTER DISCOVERING THAT BRANDON SUFFERS FROM CEREBRAL PALSY, THE NUNEZ FAMILY SUED SEVERAL DOCTORS INVOLVED IN BRANDON’S BIRTH. TO BE CLEAR, DR. BECKER WAS NOT ONE OF THEM. A JURY AWARDED BRANDON 38 MILLION DOLLARS TO PROVIDE FOR A LIFETIME OF MEDICAL CARE AND LOST INCOME.

Nunez: I wanted to go through to trial. And it’s not only because of the money. I thought about him when he grows, you know, “What happened to me, why am I like this?”

JEFF GREENFIELD: THESE TWO SCENES RAISE ONE KEY QUESTION: IS THERE A DIFFERENT WAY OF APPROACHING MEDICAL MALPRACTICE CASES TO ENSURE VICTIMS LIKE BRANDON NUNEZ RECEIVE THE JUSTICE THEY DESERVE, WHILE HOLDING DOWN THE COST OF MALPRACTICE INSURANCE PREMIUMS SO DOCTORS LIKE RON BECKER CAN CONTINUE TO PLY THEIR MUCH-NEEDED SKILLS?

THE CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING MEDICAL MALPRACTICE IS HARDLY NEW. BUT BECAUSE OF PRESIDENT OBAMA’S HEALTH CARE PLAN, THE ISSUE IS GETTING RENEWED ATTENTION. THERE’S A PROVISION IN OBAMACARE THAT ENCOURAGES STATES TO EXPERIMENT WITH MEDICAL MALPRACTICE REFORM.

Obama: “So I’m proposing that we move forward on a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine.”

JEFF GREENFIELD: FOR DOCTORS AND FOR THEIR INSURANCE COMPANIES, FINDING WAYS TO HOLD DOWN THE COST OF MEDICAL MALPRACTICE INSURANCE PREMIUMS IS A TOP PRIORITY. WHEN DR. BECKER WAS WORKING FULL TIME, ABOUT TEN PERCENT OF HIS INCOME WENT TO MALPRACTICE INSURANCE. DR. JAAN SIDOROV IS CHAIRMAN OF NORCAL MUTUAL, DR. BECKER’S INSURANCE COMPANY.

JEFF GREENFIELD:  Is that commonplace, that a physician will lay out something in the order of 10% more or less of gross income just to pay malpractice…”

SIDOROV: It depends on the specialty and it depends on the region of the country, but yes.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Well, let’s take OBGYN, which is a pretty high risk category?

S:IDOROV 100’s of thousands of dollars.

JEFF GREENFIELD: 100’s of thousands of dollars in…

SIDOROV: in some areas of the country to pay for liability insurance.

JEFF GREENFIELD: THOSE PREMIUMS REFLECT THE COST OF DEFENDING AGAINST MALPRACTICE LAWSUITS. WHILE NEARLY 2/3’S OF SUCH SUITS ARE EVENTUALLY DROPPED OR DISMISSED, IT STILLS COSTS AN AVERAGE OF 22,000 DOLLARS TO FIGHT CASES THAT NEVER GO TO TRIAL. ONCE A LAW SUIT DOES GO TO TRIAL, THE AVERAGE COST JUMPS TO 100,000 DOLLARS.

DR. RON BECKER: Shortly there after I am sued by the patient..

JEFF GREENFIELD: FOR HIS PART, DR. RON BECKER HAS BEEN SUED TWICE – IN ONE CASE, HIS NAME WAS EVENTUALLY REMOVED FROM THE SUIT, IN THE OTHER, THERE WAS A SETTLEMENT. BECKER IS ADAMANT THAT BOTH LAWSUITS WERE WITHOUT MERIT.

JEFF GREENFIELD: To what extent do you think that a lot of malpractice cases are simply brought because there’s somebody with what they call deep pockets?

BECKER: I would say it’s quite frequent

In Canada, where it’s not that easy to bring a suit and the loser has to pay the costs a doctors is about one fifth as likely to be sued as a doctor in America.

JEFF GREENFIELD: And we should not assume Canadian doctors are five times better than American doctors?

BECKER: No, I wouldn’t think so.

JEFF GREENFIELD: DOCTORS AND THEIR INSURERS SAY SO CALLED “FRIVOLOUS” LAWSUITS IMPOSE ANOTHER COST ON THE HEALTH CARE SYSTEM. IT GOES BY THE NAME “DEFENSIVE MEDICINE”– THE BATTERY OF UNNECESSARY TESTS AND PROCEDURES THAT DOCTORS ORDER UP TO SHIELD THEMSELVES FROM ANY ACCUSATION OF WRONGDOING.

SIDOROV: for doctors that have been beat up by even one lawsuit, it really changes the dynamic of the doctor/patient relationship to the point where sometimes doctors walk into a room wondering if this is going to be the next case against them.

JEFF GREENFIELD: In your own practice, did you find yourself practicing what’s called “defensive medicine?”

BECKER: Oh yes, in fact, it’s so insidious, so subtle, that you just get accustomed to it. It just becomes a natural part of your practice. You can have a patient transferred from another hospital. All the tests are done. Your order all those tests again because you can’t be 100% sure that that other hospital knows what they’re doing.

JEFF GREENFIELD: SO HOW MUCH DOES DEFENSIVE MEDICINE CONTRIBUTE TO HEALTH CARE COSTS IN AMERICA? ONE STUDY DONE BY THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION PUTS THE FIGURE AT AS MUCH AS 126 BILLION A YEAR. THAT’S NEARLY FIVE & A HALF PERCENT OF TOTAL HEALTH CARE SPENDING.

UNSURPRISINGLY, THERE ARE THOSE WHO SEE THINGS VERY DIFFERENTLY THAN DOCTORS BECKER & SIDOROV DO. BRUCE FAGEL IS A WELL KNOWN TRIAL ATTORNEY WHO SPECIALIZES IN MEDICAL MALPRACTICE CASES.

BRUCE FAGEL: The fact is that access to the courts, it is an essential part of any democratic civil society.

JEFF GREENFIELD: BESIDES BEING AN ATTORNEY, FAGEL IS ALSO A DOCTOR WHO SPENT TEN YEARS WORKING IN A HOSPITAL EMERGENCY ROOM. HE SAYS MEDICAL MALPRACTICE THAT RESULTS IN INJURY OR DEATH IS VERY REAL – HE’S SEEN IT FIRST HAND.

FAGEL: When a doctor or nurse is involved in a situation in which there is a bad outcome and it ends up either being settled or going to a jury trial with a verdict, that has tremendous motivation on changing behavior.

FAGEL: First thing that doctors is gonna do, he’s gonna analyze how did this happen? Why did I do this? How did this occur? And make sure it doesn’t happen again.

JEFF GREENFIELD: FAGEL – WHO WAS SONIA NUNEZ’S ATTORNEY – ALSO DISPUTES THE NOTION THAT MALPRACTICE LAWSUITS ARE BURDENING THE HEALTH CARE SYSTEM BY ADDING TO THE COST OF MEDICAL CARE. IN FACT, HE SAYS SUCH SUITS ARE THE EXCEPTION, NOT THE RULE.

ACCORDING TO AN INVESTIGATION BY THE HEARST NEWSPAPER GROUP, PREVENTABLE MEDICAL MISTAKES KILL SOME 200,000 AMERICANS EVERY YEAR, MAKING IT ONE OF THE LEADING CAUSES OF DEATH IN THE UNITED STATES. YET ACCORDING TO A STUDY BY THE HARVARD SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH, ONLY ABOUT 4% OF INJURED PATIENTS OR THEIR FAMILIES EVER SUE.

FAGEL: Statistically, most patients that are injured never find out because they don’t file a lawsuit. And because the doctors and hospitals don’t tell them what happened and what went wrong.

So we have to spread a net out and often sue several doctors and take the depositions of multiple nurses who are employees of the hospital. I’ll call it a ‘fishing expedition’. We’re throwing out a net. That metaphor will work. The difference is it’s not throwing out a net and all that comes in, we’re raking in the money. We’re throwing out a net to get information to find out what happened.”

JEFF GREENFIELD: FOLLOWING UP ON PRESIDENT OBAMA’S SUGGESTION TO REFORM THE MEDICAL MALPRACTICE SYSTEM, THERE ARE THOSE WHO ARE NOW PROPOSING ANOTHER WAY TO DEAL WITH THE ISSUE. MEET PHILIP HOWARD, A PROMINENT CORPORATE LAWYER.

PHILIP HOWARD: Doctors who make mistakes ought to pay for the cost of their mistakes. But they shouldn’t pay when don’t make mistakes. And so what we’re trying to do is to create a system that’s less adversarial, where mistakes are accepted as part of any human activity and there’s adequate compensation more efficiently.

JEFF GREENFIELD: HOWARD IS THE FOUNDER OF COMMON GOOD—A NONPARTISAN ADVOCACY GROUP THAT LOOKS FOR WHAT IT CALLS “COMMON SENSE SOLUTIONS” TO SOME OF AMERICA’S MORE INTRACTABLE PROBLEMS.

Howard: Fear of being sued has changed the culture of health care delivery. Hospitals have reorganized themselves with risk management systems all designed to minimize lawsuits. Doctors have been trained to go through the day with a little lawyer on their shoulders whispering in their ears about, “could this be a potential plaintiff?”

JEFF: If a contractor builds a house for me, the house falls down and my family is injured or killed he’s gonna pay. If an automobile company designs a car with genuine recklessness and causes deaths and injuries, they’re gonna pay. Do you want doctors exempted from that?

HOWARD: Not at all. I want a system of justice that can sort good care from bad care. The problem with the current system of justice is it makes doctors pay when they didn’t make a mistake. And by the way, it often actually protects doctors when they did make a mistake.

JEFF GREENFIELD: HOWARD NOTES THAT UNDER THE CURRENT SYSTEM, DOCTORS ARE OFTEN NOT REQUIRED TO ADMIT NEGLIGENCE EVEN IF THEY WERE AT FAULT. ANOTHER FLAW, HE SAYS – IS THE TIME IT TAKES FOR MALPRACTICE CASES TO GET RESOLVED, AN AVERAGE OF 28 MONTHS IN CASES THAT ARE SETTLED OUT OF COURT, 39 MONTHS OR LONGER IF THE CASES GO TO TRIAL.

SO, IS THERE ANOTHER WAY? IN SOME COUNTRIES, MEDICAL MALPRACTICES CASES ARE DECIDED BY SPECIAL ADMINISTRATIVE PANELS. THEY’RE KNOWN AS “HEALTH COURTS.” IN FACT IN AMERICA, THE PRECEDENT ALREADY EXISTS.

HOWARD: This country has a long history of special courts in situations that involve complex fact patterns or complex knowledge. We have separate patent courts, tax courts. And we think health care is one of those issues that requires a special court.

JEFF GREENFIELD: AS WE’VE SEEN, THE WAY WE HANDLE MEDICAL MALPRACTICE IN AMERICA HAS STAUNCH DEFENDERS… AND ARDENT CRITICS. BUT YOU ALSO HEARD MENTION OF A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT APPROACH THAT’S USED IN SEVERAL OTHER COUNTRIES. IT’S AN APPROACH THAT TAKES MALPRACTICE COMPLETELY OUT OF THE COURTROOM. AND BY DOING SO, SUPPORTERS SAY, IT MAKES IT EASIER FOR DOCTORS TO PRACTICE MEDICINE, AND FOR INJURED PATIENTS TO GET COMPENSATED QUICKLY.

WE WERE INTRIGUED BY THIS IDEA, SO WE RECENTLY SENT WILLIAM BRANGHAM TO DENMARK TO EXAMINE HOW THAT COUNTRY’S SYSTEM WORKS. A NOTE OF CAUTION: IN THIS REPORT, THERE ARE SCENES OF MEDICAL PROCEDURES THAT MIGHT MAKE SOME VIEWERS UNCOMFORTABLE.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): AFTER SHE SENDS HER TWO SONS OFF TO SCHOOL, 34 YEAR OLD SINGLE MOM JEANETTE MARIA BOARDS A BUS FOR THE HOSPITAL NEAR HER RURAL TOWN IN DENMARK…

FOR SEVERAL YEARS, STARTING AROUND 2007, SHE COMPLAINED TO HER DOCTOR ABOUT BAD HEADACHES, FEELING EXHAUSTED AND CONSTANTLY NAUSEOUS… BUT SHE SAYS HE TOLD HER THE SYMPTOMS WERE ALL IN HER HEAD.

JEANETTE MARIA: (voice of translator) At one point I go and google my symptoms. And ‘kidney disease’ comes up, and I show that to my doctor. But he says it’s, like he said those other times: There’s really nothing wrong with me.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): TURNS OUT SHE DID HAVE KIDNEY DISEASE – SEVERE KIDNEY DISEASE – AND NOW THREE DAYS A WEEK SHE SPENDS FIVE HOURS HOOKED UP TO DIALYSIS. WITHOUT A KIDNEY TRANSPLANT, SHE’LL LIVE LIKE THIS FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE. BACK IN 2006, STEEN LARSEN FELT A BULGE IN THE BACK OF THIS THROAT..

INGE LETHAN: Then going to the specialists and they pretty fast confirmed that this was cancer and had to be treated.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): AGGRESSIVE RADIATION TREATMENT WAS SUPPOSED TO BEGIN WITHIN WEEKS, BUT THERE WAS A BACKLOG AT THE HOSPITAL, AND SO HIS TREATMENT WAS DELAYED BY MONTHS. HIS TUMOR KEPT GROWING… AND HIS CHANCES FOR SURVIVAL WENT DOWN.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: How much did it grow?

STEEN LARSEN: It was on the way out—-outside of my mouth.

INGE LETHAN: You could visualize it when he opened his mouth.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (on camera): IF THESE PEOPLE LIVED IN THE UNITED STATES AND THEY WANTED SOME COMPENSATION FOR WHAT HAD HAPPENED WITH THEIR CASES, THEY BASICALLY HAVE ONE OPTION: THEY HIRE A LAWYER AND THEY TAKE THEIR CASE TO COURT. BUT HERE IN DENMARK, THEY HAVE A VERY DIFFERENT APPROACH.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): INSTEAD OF SUING YOUR DOCTOR OR HOSPITAL, LIKE WE DO IN THE U.S. – HERE, YOU DIRECT YOUR COMPLAINT TO THIS OFFICE, THE PATIENT INSURANCE ASSOCIATION.

MARTIN ERICHSEN IS THE DEPUTY DIRECTOR

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): So let’s say I’m a patient, and I believe that I’ve been hurt by a doctor or a hospital. What do I do?

MARTIN ERICHSEN: All you have to do is, actually, to fill in a claims form. You can– even fill it in on our– on the– our webpage.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So you don’t need a lawyer?

MARTIN ERICHSEN: Don’t need a lawyer.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Does it cost any money to file?

MARTIN ERICHSEN: It’s absolutely free for the patient. Only have to fill in the claims form. That’s all he has to do.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): THE PATIENT’S COMPLAINT ABOUT THEIR INJURY THEN GOES TO AN INDEPENDENT PANEL OF LAWYERS, DOCTORS AND ADMINISTRATORS. THERE’S NO COURTROOM… NO TESTIMONY… THEY EXAMINE A PATIENT’S MEDICAL RECORDS AND HOLD IT AGAINST THIS STANDARD: WOULD “AN EXPERIENCED SPECIALIST IN THE FIELD… HAVE ACTED DIFFERENTLY… THEREBY AVOIDING THE INJURY”? IF SO, THEN A PATIENT IS OFFERED COMPENSATION, ALL PAID FOR BY DANISH TAXPAYERS.

DOCTOR IN MEETING: So they got compensation initially and I’d recommend they get compensation again..

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): FOR COMPLAINTS ABOUT SPECIFIC DOCTORS, THERE’S A TOTALLY SEPARATE, ALSO, NON-JUDICIAL PROCESS FOR DEALING WITH THOSE CASES. THIS DANISH SYSTEM IS JUST TWENTY YEARS OLD – BEFORE, THEY HAD A SYSTEM VERY SIMILAR TO THE U.S. WHERE INJURED PATIENTS TOOK THEIR COMPLAINTS TO COURT. BUT LIKE IN THE U.S., THE CRITICISM WAS THAT SYSTEM WAS PAINFULLY SLOW AND SERVED ONLY A FEW PATIENTS. UNDER THE CURRENT DANISH SYSTEM, AN ESTIMATED 30 TIMES MORE PATIENTS ARE COMPENSATED, AND THEY GET PAID MUCH MORE QUICKLY… ON AVERAGE, WITHIN ABOUT SIX TO SEVEN MONTHS. PAYMENTS AVERAGE ROUGHLY $50,000, AND ARE CAPPED AT ABOUT TWO MILLION DOLLARS. THE GOAL IS TO MOSTLY COVER LOST WAGES, NOT HUGE AMOUNTS FOR PAIN-AND-SUFFERING.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (on-camera): IF THOSE AMOUNTS SOUND STINGY TO AMERICANS, IT’S WORTH REMEMBERING THAT THE DANISH GOVERNMENT PROVIDES A VERY GENEROUS SOCIAL SAFETY NET, INCLUDING TAXPAYER-FUNDED, UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE FOR ALL ITS CITIZENS. SO, UNLIKE IN THE U.S., DANES DON’T OFTEN GO BANKRUPT BECAUSE OF STAGGERING MEDICAL BILLS, AND DON’T HAVE TO SUE TO PROTECT THEMSELVES.

MARTIN ERICHSEN: It’s kind of icing on the top of the cake — the system.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Some Americans might look at the Danish system and believe that there’s not a strong enough advocate for the patient in this. Here, you’re having decisions made by lawyers and doctors who you never know or may never meet. Do you feel that there is a proper champion for the patients here in this system?

MARTIN ERICHSEN: I hope we are the proper champion for the patient in this system. We are supposed to be. We have lawyers that are specialists in these kinds of cases handling the patient and looking out for the best interest of the patient. I think we do that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): ANOTHER FEATURE SUPPORTERS POINT TO WITH THE DANISH SYSTEM IS IMPROVEMENT IN THE PATIENT-DOCTOR RELATIONSHIP. NOT ONLY DO THEY NOT FACE-OFF IN COURT, MANY DOCTORS IN DENMARK ACTUALLY HELP THEIR PATIENTS FILE THEIR INITIAL CLAIMS.

CHARLOTTE WILKENS-JENSEN: We’re not, we don’t have this threat of being sued, so it’s just normal for us.

DR. CHARLOTTE WILKEN-JENSEN IS HEAD OF OBSTETRICS AND GYNECOLOCY AT A LARGE REGIONAL HOSPITAL JUST OUTSIDE OF COPENHAGEN…

CHARLOTTE WILKEN-JENSEN: We know that we make mistakes, and we know that there are systems that take care of those mistakes, not in the medical way, but outside the medical system. We tell the patient about it, and we tell her about her opportunities to—

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: To get compensated–

CHARLOTTE WILKENS-JENSEN: –to get compensated, yeah, financially.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): IN THE U.S., OB/GYNS PAY HUGE AMOUNTS FOR MALPRACTICE INSURANCE -EASILY SPENDING SIX FIGURES A YEAR. DANISH OB’S ON THE OTHER HAND, CARRY LITTLE, IF ANY. WILKEN-JENSEN ALSO SAYS SHE’S NEVER FELT THE PRESSURE – A PRESSURE THAT MANY U.S. DOCTORS FEEL – TO PRACTICE SO-CALLED ‘DEFENSIVE MEDICINE’ – WHICH MEANS DOING ADDITIONAL TESTS OR PROCEDURES JUST TO GUARD AGAINST POSSIBLE LAWSUITS.

CHARLOTTE WILKENS-JENSEN: As a doctor, as a health professional, you’re always afraid to make mistakes, because it can have very serious consequences. You do not want to do harm – not for money, not for any legal courses, but because of your integrity as a health professional. So it’s usually, it’s a very fine relationship.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (on-camera): ANOTHER INTERESTING FEATURE OF THE DANISH SYSTEM IS THE WAY IN WHICH THEY KEEP INFORMATION ABOUT MEDICAL ERRORS. IN THE UNITED STATES, PROBABLY BECAUSE OF THE FEAR OF LITIGATION, DATA ABOUT ERRORS MADE BY DOCTORS AND HOSPITALS IS NOT SHARED VERY WIDELY. HERE IN DENMARK, HOWEVER, THAT INFORMATION IS WIDELY AVAILABLE TO RESEARCHERS WHO MIGHT WANT TO USE IT TO TRY AND IMPROVE PATIENT SAFETY.

DR. MORTEN HEDEGAARD: So is the baby moving around a lot?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): DR. MORTEN HEDEGAARD IS ALSO AN OB/GYN, AND RUNS THE DEPARTMENT AT DENMARK’S BIGGEST HOSPITAL. AS A CONSULTANT TO THE PATIENT INSURANCE ASSOCIATION, HE REVIEWED NUMEROUS CASES WHERE A PREGNANT MOTHER CAME INTO A MATERNITY WARD TO DELIVER HER CHILD, BUT DURING DELIVERY, THE MEDICAL STAFF MISINTERPRETED TEST RESULTS SIGNALING THAT THE UNBORN CHILD WASN’T GETTING ENOUGH OXYGEN.

DR. MORTEN HEDEGAARD: And the worst cases will end up the baby dying or maybe just as worse, the baby ending up with a lifelong disability, especially cerebral palsy.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): USING THAT DATA, HEDEGAARD IS NOW DESIGNING A NATIONWIDE PROGRAM TO IMPROVE THE TRAINING OF MEDICAL STAFF ACROSS DENMARK… THE GOAL: THAT MORE BABIES CAN THRIVE, JUST LIKE THIS LITTLE GIRL…

DR. MORTEN HEDEGAARD: Right now, we are in the middle of the project. So, it’s too early to say if we are going to succeed. But our aim is to reduce the problem by 50%.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): FIRST AND FOREMOST, HOWEVER, THE PATIENT INSURANCE SYSTEM IS MEANT TO HELP INJURED PATIENTS, AND BY MOST ACCOUNTS, IT DOES THAT SUCCESSFULLY. EVEN THOUGH PEOPLE CAN APPEAL THE PANEL’S DECISIONS, ONLY 15% DO.

JEANETTE MARIA WAS ONE OF THEM. BACK IN 2010, JEANETTE FILED HER CLAIM… THE INSURANCE ASSOCIATION AGREED THAT HER DOCTORS MISSED THAT HER KIDNEYS WERE FAILING AND THEY TOLD HER SHE’LL GET SOME COMPENSATION. BUT THEY ALSO DETERMINED SHE’D HAVE REQUIRED KIDNEY DIALYSIS NO MATTER WHAT. JEANETTE DISAGREES – AND SHE’S WORRIED THE COMPENSATION WON’T BE NEARLY ENOUGH TO OFFSET HOW SEVERELY HER LIFE’S BEEN CHANGED.

JEANNETTE MARIA (voice of translator): I was told that if I was lucky and everything went well, I would have 30 years left. I need to know I can secure my children’s future. Money cannot make up for what has happened – not at all. The situation is the way it is, but I hope it can help my kids in the future, when I’m no longer around.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (narration): JEANETTE FILED A RELATIVELY RARE APPEAL – WHICH IS AS SIMPLE AS WRITING A LETTER – BUT, LIKE NEARLY 98% OF APPEALS, IT WAS DENIED.. SHE’LL BE NOTIFIED WHAT HER FINAL COMPENSATION WILL BE IN A FEW MONTHS.

STEEN LARSEN AND HIS WIFE INGE FILED A CLAIM BECAUSE OF THE LONG DELAYS IN HIS CANCER TREATMENT, AND AFTER ABOUT SIX MONTHS, THEY RECEIVED A TOTAL OF $10,000. AGAIN, ALL DONE WITH NO LAWYER, NO COURTROOMS, AND VERY LITTLE PAPERWORK.

IN THE MEANTIME, STEENS CANCER TREATMENT WENT FORWARD, AND THEY BELIEVE THE CANCER HAS BEEN KNOCKED OUT.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Is that $10,000 U.S. dollars — is that a satisfactory amount? Do you feel like that was what you deserved, what you were owed?

INGE LETHAN: Actually, we did not go for the money. We, the reason we complained was to tell the story that this is not good enough, and to have focus on that this was not good enough. Well, it was nice to have a bit of compensation. But you also have to think about that this money, they got from the hospital, and it’s taxpayer’s money so, I mean, maybe they were better spent increasing capacity at the hospital than paying out huge amounts to individuals.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So part of your complaint was to say, “Don’t let this happen to someone else. The next person who comes in with cancer, treat them right away.”

INGE LETHAN: Yeah, that was actually the– our motive for filling in the complaint. We’re just happy that he survived. I mean, he’s free of cancer. We are living almost our life as we did before.

STEEN LARSEN: It’s okay. I feel okay today.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Good.

STEEN LARSEN: I’m alive.

JEFF GREENFIELD [narration]: THIS WEEK ONLINE…TAKE PART IN OUR WEEKLY POLL. THE TOPIC: LIMITING MALPRACTICE LAWSUIT AWARDS. VISIT PBS/ORG/NEED TO KNOW.

JEFF GREENFIELD: THE DEBATE OVER MEDICAL MALPRACTICE SOMETIMES SOUNDS LIKE A CONTEST: “PICK YOUR VILLAIN.” IN THIS CORNER, GREEDY TRIAL LAWYERS, WHO LOOK FOR A HUGE PAYDAY–AND A HUGE CONTINGENCY FEE–BY SUING ANYONE IN THE CHAIN OF MEDICAL CARE, NO MATTER IF THERE WAS NO FAULT, BUT ONLY A MALEVOLENT TWIST OF FATE. IN THE OTHER CORNER, GREEDY INSURANCE COMPANIES WHO SEEK TO DENY GRAVELY INJURED MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN THEIR RIGHT TO BE COMPENSATED FOR A LIFE LOST, OR IRREPARABLY DAMAGED.

BUT THE NUMBERS TELL US THAT “PICK YOUR VILLAIN” IS A FOOL’S ERRAND. THEY TELL US THAT NEITHER THE MAJORITY OF INJURED PATIENTS NOR THE MAJORITY OF PHYSICIANS ARE FINDING JUSTICE IN THE SYSTEM WE NOW HAVE…AND WHATEVER THE COST TO OUR HEALTH CARE SYSTEM, THE COST TO FAIRNESS SEEMS TO HAVE BECOME UNACCEPTABLY HIGH. THAT’S IT FOR THIS EDITION OF NEED TO KNOW. NEXT WEEK, TRAINING WORKERS TO FILL THE JOBS THAT DO EXIST.

THINKING LOCALLY TO SOLVE THE JOBS CRISIS. I’M JEFF GREENFIELD. THANKS FOR WATCHING.

 
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Comments

  • Cadeau

    The Danish system sounds great, but trial lawyers would block any attempt to adopt it here. In addition, I’m not sure it would work here without also having the wide-ranging social support system Denmark has.

  • Thomas L Wilton

    The topic is crucially important, and your questions/analysis are appreciated. But why oh why does your transcript writer insist on printing “gonna” instead of “going to”, regardless of who is speaking. Is it really necessary to “dumb down” your public report?