Medical malpractice is not just a migraine headache for Massachusetts physicians, it's also become a huge worry for Bay State voters, according to a survey from the McCormack Graduate School of Business at the University of Massachusetts/Boston.
According to a telephone poll conducted May 2-6 of a random sample of 400 voters, 69% of those surveyed said they favored a limit on medical malpractice damages awards for pain and suffering if patients are compensated for all economic losses.
In addition, 62% said doctors pay too much for malpractice insurance, and 57% said patients sue doctors too often.
Meanwhile, 92% of survey respondents said physicians are an important part of the Massachusetts economy, and 66% said they believe that physicians leaving the state due to a deteriorating work environment is either a serious or a very serious problem.
Finally, 73% said the issue of medical malpractice insurance is a major problem or crisis.
The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5%, with a 95% confidence level.
Pollster Lou DiNatale, director of the Center for State and Local Policy at the McCormack School and director of the UMass Poll, which conducted the survey, said the high numbers reflected strong evidence that, after 20 years of ignoring the problem, voters have reached critical mass with the medical malpractice issue.
"Those are big numbers for any kind a public policy issues when you can get 60% or 70% or 80% agreeing, these are slam dunks," DiNatale said. Five years ago, the numbers would have been only half as high, he said, but recently stories about the malpractice insurance problem repeatedly have appeared in the newspapers.
"You can tell the voters are interested because the papers are carrying the thing on page one," he said.
"It reminds me of drunk driving stuff," DiNatale said. For years, the drunk driver problem was ignored, "then one day it just pops like a cork coming out of a bottle."
"The medical community is considered a primary economic engine, and as the state's economy reformulates in the aftermath of the recession, threats to the medical community are taken pretty seriously," DiNatale said.
For physicians, their financial success had for many years worked against them in building public support for constraining medical malpractice awards, DiNatale said.
"It's hard to build sympathy for doctors around economic issues," he said. "It doesn't really jump to the front of a legislator's agenda. There was always a perception of high income. But when you say doctors can't afford housing or you can't keep a surgeon in Massachusetts, this is something people didn't expect to happen.
"It's a tough fight," he said, for the hearts and minds of the public. "You're fighting against the trial attorneys, you're fighting against the headlines (on malpractice cases) and against the natural inclinations against high incomes. That's why it took two decades."
But, he said, "The public's attention on public policy issues is usually crisis-driven. It's a crisis in Massachusetts right now."
According to the Massachusetts Medical Society, physicians face an average increase of 11.3% in their 2004 liability premiums from the state's largest commercial insurer, with some seeing premiums jump more than 30%.
A society study said as much as one-third of the practicing physicians are contemplating leaving the state if the practice environment continues to deteriorate.