Many of you have probably read an article published this weekend in the New York Times about tort reform in Texas which featured a story from a patient at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa in San Antonio, Texas.
In an effort to protect Americans and their personal information, federal privacy laws (like HIPAA) threaten us with legal action if we comment on the care of any patient. Therefore, I can’t discuss Ms. Spears’ medical condition or treatment at our facility in detail. I can, however, extend to her my deepest consideration and compassion for what must be an extremely difficult situation for her and her family.
I can say that I have reviewed the documentation related to the incident described in the article, and it is my opinion that we provided care that was entirely complete and appropriate.
Because I can’t provide any further details, I would like to take this opportunity to add my voice to the dialogue regarding the focus of the article, tort reform in Texas.
Let me be clear: if an error occurs in our delivery processes, the patient and his or her family should be told the truth and should be financially reimbursed for the costs which have been caused by the error. In all my years as a practicing physician and even now as the president and CEO of an international health care system, I understand the great responsibility we are given by our patients and their families when they choose to place their lives and the lives of their loved ones in our hands. This is why I have always said that for CHRISTUS Health, excellence is a necessity, not a luxury.
Tort reform in Texas does not do away with financial awards to patients who have been wrongfully harmed by inappropriate treatment. It merely caps noneconomic damages at $250,000 per health care provider, with a maximum award of $750,000. Since tort reform was passed in 2003, these suits have continued to be filed, including against Emergency Room physicians, and damages have continued to be awarded.
We have known for years that the legal system put into place to deal with less-than-favorable quality outcomes in health care were necessary, but inappropriate as long as the potential settlements were uncapped and limitless. Support for tort reform does not mean refusing to accept responsibility, nor does it mean that providers are held to a lower quality standard. Instead, it means supporting paying what is due, admitting what was done incorrectly and doing everything possible to mitigate negative outcomes and create a positive solution for patients and their families.
Since the passage of tort reform, physicians have also begun to see Texas as a more attractive environment in which to practice medicine, and some studies show that our physician population has increased 31 percent. As we contemplate a current and worsening primary physician shortage, this is good news for Texans, who have more access to health care than they did before.
Specifically in CHRISTUS Health, since tort reform was passed, our expenses for litigation have been reduced dramatically. We have used these savings to further improve our quality and patient safety by reinvesting them in programs and projects throughout our entire health system. And as a result, we believe both the number of claims and the size of the claims have been even reduced further than as a result of tort reform alone.
Each of our 13 regions can submit projects which they believe, if implemented, would accelerate improvements in their quality of care. Based on competitive reviews, several of these are funded each year from these savings. Programs in the past which have received such support include providing standardized competency testing for all nurses, and providing the latest and safest way to lift heavy patients from one location to another. These programs were designed, funded and piloted and are now being universally implemented across the entire system.
The first program funded this way involved certifying all nurses and re-educating physicians in the appropriate use of fetal monitors. This was because, as many of you are aware, catastrophic events for the baby during the delivery process account for the largest number of lawsuits past and present in most hospitals and health systems. This signaled to us that improving “fetal monitor literacy” in our caregivers would result in an even higher level of safety for our youngest patients. After requiring this higher level of proven clinical competence in applying and reading fetal monitor strips during the labor and delivery process, CHRISTUS Health has successfully, in the last 12 months, delivered consecutively 17,000 healthy babies without any fetal abnormalities.
In the end, when we talk to patients who have had less-than-favorable outcomes, we believe that they truly want to be treated fairly and to do whatever is necessary to make sure the error does not recur. Tort reform makes both of these goals possible and creates a win-win situation for both the health care providers and the patients who receive our care.
I, along with the CHRISTUS family of 30,000 Associates, am dedicated to our mission of extending the healing ministry of Jesus Christ every day. We understand and take very seriously the awesome responsibility of caring for the health and lives of our friends and neighbors, and will continue to provide high quality, compassionate care at our facilities across the U.S. and Mexico.