NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 8, 2005

With rising medical-malpractice insurance rates, many doctors are feeling the pressure, except for one group -- anesthesiologists. Today, they pay less for malpractice insurance because they have put more emphasis on improving patient safety.

In 1985, the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) created a program, the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation (APSF), to research new safety techniques.

  • The development of high-tech mannequins allows anesthesiologists to practice responses to allergic reactions and other life-threatening situations.
  • Two new products were created: pulse oximetry and capnography. The first measures the oxygen level in the patient's blood stream by a device clipped to the patient?s finger; the second measures carbon dioxide in a patient's expelled breath.
  • They also pushed for procedures that protect unconscious patients from potential carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Additionally, devices equipped with alarms were created to alert doctors to sudden changes. The APSF is pushing to adopt a formal standard prohibiting anesthesiologists from disabling the alarms, since 26 alarm-related malpractice claims have been filed between 1970 and 2002.

Overall, anesthesia fatalities and the percentage of malpractice suits have dropped.

  • In 1972, anesthesiologists accounted for 7.9 percent of all medical- malpractice claims; today, they account for only 3.8 percent.
  • The size of payments from successful malpractice suits has declined, says ASA; the median payment during the 1970s was $332,280, by the 1990s it had dropped to $179,010, while claims for serious injuries have also become less frequent.
  • Additionally, malpractice rates for anesthesiologists have gradually fallen; this year, the average annual premium is $20,572, compared to $32,620 in 1985. That?s a decrease of 37 percent in 20 years.

Anesthesiologists still make mistakes and aren?t immune to adjustments in insurance rates. Even though they pay the smallest premium, an average of $21,000, rates have grown 24 percent since 2002, says ASA.

Source: Joseph T. Hallinan, "Once Seen as Risky, One Group Of Doctors Changes Its Ways," Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2005.

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