The number of malpractice payments made on behalf of doctors in 2010 is the lowest on record since the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen began tracking these payments in 1990, yet health care costs continue to rise.

The total number of malpractice payments dropped from a high of 16,566 in 2001 to 10,195 last year, data from the organization’s latest report, which is based on statistics from the National Practitioner Data Bank, indicates. The majority of the payments were for injuries resulting in death or permanent injury.

Despite this decline, the costs of health care continue to increase. Medical malpractice payments only amounted to 0.13% of overall healthcare costs in 2010, prompting the group to question why costs continue to creep up. Healthcare costs rose 90% between 2000 and 2010, while medical malpractice payment dropped 11.9%, according to the report.

The drop in malpractice payments is not due to a decrease in medical errors, the authors of the Public Citizen report wrote, citing three major studies published in 2010 and 2011.

The first study from the Department of Health & Human Services concluded that one out of seven hospitalized Medicare patients experienced a serious adverse event; that these adverse events contributed to 1.5% of Medicare patient deaths; and that 44% of these adverse events were preventable.

The second study, which involved patients in North Carolina Hospitals, found that 18% experienced adverse events and 63% of these were preventable. The third study, published in April 2011, revealed that adverse events or errors occur in nearly one-in-three hospital admissions.

The contrast between the drop in malpractice payments and the continued problem of medical errors is indicative that the real medical malpractice crisis involves “the epidemic of medical errors, not […] relatively rare compensatory payments,” the Public Citizen report concluded.

Public Citizen. Medical Malpractice Payments: 2010. Published online: May 2011.