NY judges go to mini-medical school to help settle malpractice cases

June 22, 2011

An innovative new program is providing abbreviated medical education to New York judges so that they can quickly dispose of frivolous malpractice suits and speed settlements of others. The ?judge-directed negotiations? concept, which began in the Bronx and is being expanded with a $3 million grant, offers some significant benefits to physicians facing the ordeal of a lawsuit.

Imagine this scene: 70 judges attending a three-day mini-medical school to learn about anatomy, biomechanics, and human locomotion, all so that they can play a more active role in helping to negotiate settlements in medical malpractice cases.

That’s what happened a few months ago in New York as part of an innovative program developed by Bronx County Supreme Court Justice Douglas E. McKeon. The “judge-directed negotiations” program, which started in the Bronx, has been expanded to New York, Kings, and Queens Counties.

Even though the program has been around for years, it has prompted a lot of recent discussion on the blogosphere after being featured in an article in the Sunday New York Times in June.

The goal of the “judge-directed negotiations” is to settle malpractice suits as early in the process as possible. New York is expanding the program with a $3 million Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality grant. Five New York City hospitals also have participated in the initiative, using some of the funds for patient-safety programs.

McKeon, who sat in on anatomy classes at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, presides over all medical malpractice cases involving Health and Hospitals Corporation (HCC) hospitals in the Bronx and Manhattan.

The New York Department of Health said that under McKeon’s initial project, savings of up to $50 million annually were achieved, and that the program will be evaluated by the Harvard School of Public Health, with the eventual goal of expanding the initiative statewide or even nationally.

Is this good news for physicians? Most likely, for the following reasons:

• More medically-knowledgeable judges, who also have the option of consulting with clinical experts, can dispose of frivolous suits before they clog up the court system;

• Even when lawsuits are found to have merit, the system is designed to settle them early in the process before a lot of administrative costs are incurred;

• The presence of the judge can keep discussion more rational and often avoids a jury trial, which can result in astronomical judgments against medical practitioners.

An article published by an Einstein faculty member noted that, since its inception about 3 years ago, McKeon’s initiative has been used in about a fourth of the medically-related lawsuits in the Bronx and has resulted in settlements in about 95% of them.

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