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Health providers research malpractice suits to improve safety

Here's a pleasant side effect of those nasty malpractice lawsuits: learning how to do medicine better.

Doctors, hospitals and other medical providers reportedly are using data and lessons from thousands of past malpractice suits to learn the most common reasons they're getting slapped with such claims — and then making changes to better care for patients, and to lower the chances of getting sued in the future.

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A new report in the Wall Street Journal about the malpractice mining method comes on the heels of a recent study in the journal BMJ that found that medical errors were likely the third leading cause of death in the United States, with an estimated whopping 251,000 fatalities from such mistakes in 2013.

The report noted that a leading physician-owned malpractice insurer, The Doctors Company, has in recent years conducted dozens of studies of more than 10,000 medical malpractice lawsuits. The data dug up from those cases has been provided to doctors and hospitals for use in detecting "emerging concerns and [to] share tips for avoiding common pitfalls."

Other data mining of malpractice suits is being done by the insurer for doctors and hospitals affiliated with the prestigious Harvard Medical School, which is using the information to improve accuracy in diagnoses, the newspaper reported.

One example of how malpractice claims mining can lead to changes comes from a San Diego hospital, Scripps Mercy, which examined an analysis by The Doctors Company of suits against emergency room doctors

Scripps Mercy — which deals with many beach-goers who suffer puncture wounds from stingrays — saw that many malpractice cases were linked to alleged failures to "explore a wound that was infected or contained foreign bodies," the Journal noted.

Scripps Mercy until that point routinely had nurses or physicians assistants treat stingray wounds in the ER. But after reviewing the malpractice data, the hospital implemented a policy to have a doctor examine every major wound before it was sutured, according to the paper.

Read the full Wall Street Journal story here.