Thanks to important rules changes by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, medical malpractice suits have dropped by more than 40% over the last four years.

The two rules that were changed were:

1) Attorneys are required to obtain a certificate of merit, which is a document showing that medical procedures in a case fail to meet accepted standards.

2) Malpractice suits can only be filed in the county where the incident allegedly took place, in an effort to stop the common practice of “venue shopping.”

The baseline for comparing the rates of malpractice was set as the average number of cases between 2000 and 2002, with each year following compared to that baseline. Since the two new rules were implemented, the number of medical malpractice cases filed has steadily and drastically declined every year.

Advocates of the two new rules say that they are part of tort reform, which is supposedly aimed at helping the medical profession. In reality, it is a way of limiting plaintiffs’ compensation in real terms. Smaller payments, fewer options for finding an appropriate venue to file a lawsuit, additional paperwork requirements — in essence, anything to discourage plaintiffs from filing and seeking to prosecute medical malpractice cases.

While there is some merit to the claim that doctors are hesitant to practice medicine in risky situations for fear of litigation, the fact of the matter is that patients have a right to sue if they are improperly treated under a physician’s care. Advocates of plaintiffs’ rights point out that an emphasis on patient safety would accomplish the goal that physicians want — fewer medical malpractice suits — because the patients would not need to sue if they were treated safely from the beginning.

The declining numbers in Pennsylvania show that these new rules are having an effect in discouraging malpractice suits even as doctors continue to pay insurance companies very high premiums for malpractice insurance. Whether the patients’ rights remain protected under this system is yet to be seen.