The GW Hospital faced a slight downturn in medical malpractice cases over the past decade while treating more patients, D.C. court records show.
The hospital faced seven malpractice cases in 2009 compared to five last year, according to court records, as the number of outpatient and inpatient admissions climbed 27 and 41 percent, respectively, GW Hospital spokeswoman Susan Griffiths said. She said the hospital’s numbers are consistent with other D.C.-area hospitals, like Medstar Georgetown University Hospital and Howard University Hospital.
“GW Hospital has experienced small, single-digit year-to-year fluctuations (increases and decreases) in the aggregate number of malpractice filings,” Griffiths said in an email. “This again would be consistent with experiences of other hospitals.”
The hospital has faced an average of five malpractice suits per year since 2009, according to court documents. Data from the D.C. court systems indicate Medstar Georgetown University Hospital faced an average of about three cases per year over the same 10-year period, while Howard University Hospital sustained an average of about seven suits.
The hospital treated about 200,000 patients from 2009 to 2019, Griffiths said.
GW Hospital faced three malpractice suits in 2018, which rose to five in 2019, according to D.C. court documents. Griffiths said the hospital faced “a few” additional lawsuits not present in the D.C. Superior Court’s records but added that there was a “single-digit” increase between 2018 and 2019.
She said 61 percent of the malpractice cases brought against the hospital in the past 10 years have ultimately been dropped in court or ended with an adjudication indicating the hospital had not committed malpractice.
“It is important to note that the mere filing of a malpractice lawsuit is not indicative of any meaningful comment on the quality of care provided by the physicians involved or the hospital without further context, analysis and information on the particular matter(s),” Griffiths said.
Griffiths added that malpractice cases often do not reflect current hospital practices because patients file complaints “long after” receiving treatment at the hospital.
“Certainly every hospital would hope for zero malpractice cases ever filed; however, such a goal is unrealistic in our litigious society,” she said.
Griffiths said the hospital is often listed as a co-defendant in cases also brought against the Medical Faculty Associates. The MFA was listed as a co-defendant in malpractice cases against the hospital three times last year, according to court documents.
“In fact, in one of the new 2019 cases, the plaintiff was never even treated at GW Hospital but instead at an MFA clinic,” Griffiths said. “The plaintiff’s attorney in that case will be dismissing the hospital from the case, leaving only the physicians as defendants.”
Complainants brought cases against the GW Hospital in the D.C. Superior Court accusing the hospital of a range of mistreatments, including negligence, failing to diagnose a condition or performing surgery incorrectly.
Four of the five cases filed against the GW Hospital in 2019 were regarding procedures that the plaintiff underwent in 2016.
A couple sued the hospital last February for negligence for failing to monitor their fetus’ irregular heartbeat, which they claim led their newborn baby to die. A woman sued the hospital last January after a doctor accidentally perforated her colon during a colonoscopy in 2016, causing her heart to stop for at least 14 minutes, court documents state.
A woman filed a suit in July after three doctors incorrectly placed a stent – a tube placed temporarily inside a blood vessel to aid healing – causing the stent to move to her colon and cause major abdominal pain. A man sued the hospital in August because a nurse did not fully remove a catheter before discharging him from the hospital in 2016, causing him to miss work and physically suffer.
Malpractice law experts said malpractice cases against hospitals are expensive to bring for plaintiffs and difficult to prove in court, which leads judges to dismiss many cases. They added that hospital administrators can implement risk management practices, like internal malpractice reporting, to lower their chances of ending up party to a malpractice case.
Paula Berg, a law professor at the City University of New York, said plaintiffs pushing a malpractice case must prove that an injury occurred, the conduct alleged in a case actually caused the injury and that the hospital breached the standard of care – which attorneys confirm with medical experts.
She said proving a breach in standard of care is challenging for an injured party because expert opinions often differ on whether hospital workers fell below the standard of care, leading judges or plaintiffs to drop many cases.
“It’s very expensive to bring a medical malpractice case because you have to have a reference,” she said. “And typically doctors and hospitals are pretty well-resourced in terms of defending themselves.”
She said hospitals maintain reporting procedures that allow doctors to report potential malpractice incidents and risk management units to help lower the odds of receiving a malpractice suit.
“The injured party is sick, they’re injured and pretty seriously in most cases,” Berg said. “So they’re not about to be running around for lawyers right away.”
Michelle Mello, a law professor at Stanford University, said to minimize facing malpractice suits, administrators should admit to errors and compensate patients for mistreatment.
She added that drawing a reliable inference about quality of care based on a low number of claims against the hospital is difficult, but a pattern of claims relating to one type of injury or procedure would likely indicate a consistently low standard of care in a particular practice.
“Treating their patients fairly is a concern that they have, and a lot of these hospitals are led by clinicians who got into the business of medicine to help people,” Mello said. “They feel very badly when things go wrong, so again this movement toward transparency around adverse events and error.”
Daniel Singer, a partner at personal injury law firm Trombly and Singer, PLLC, said medical malpractice cases are typically not worth pursuing unless the plaintiff lost at least $1 million in damages because malpractice cases are expensive and difficult to win.
“There’s this huge misconception among the public,” Singer said. “The reality is that bringing a malpractice case against a hospital is an endeavor that is going to cost probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000.”
Avi Bajpai contributed reporting.
This article appeared in the February 24, 2020 issue of the Hatchet.