There are many doctors who practice “defensive medicine” in order to prevent medical malpractice lawsuits. These doctors were order extra tests and procedures because they believe that it will decrease the chances that they will be sued for medical malpractice, not because it will improve treatment. A new study shows that this may be true.
The study was conducted using the data of 24,637 Florida physicians and over 18 million hospital admissions between the years of 2000 and 2009. The data showed that the more a hospital billed, there was a decrease in the chances that the doctor was sued. This association remained across specialties, even after demographic factors were controlled for. It was also found that doctors who practiced defensive medicine one year would consistently practice defensive medicine the next.
Defensive medicine is a common practice. Many doctors will order more tests, procedures, and medicines than medically necessary in the hopes of avoiding a lawsuit. As a result, healthcare costs increase due to the increased use of unnecessary tests and procedures. This can increase the cost of health insurance premiums, taxes, co-pays, and out of pocket costs. Unfortunately, the use of defensive medicine is unlikely to stop because doctors will continue to fear the possibility of being sued for medical errors.
There are several issues that fuel the practice of defensive medicine. Patients have a certain expectation for their care, there could be conflicting recommendations for the patient’s care, and there may be local practice patters driving physicians to order certain diagnostic tests and treatments. Some physicians may practice defensive medicine to rule out any unlikely scenario. Others focus on patient outcomes, ordering extra tests or procedures to ensure that they did not miss anything. Experience is also a factor. A doctor may order an extra test or procedure for a patient and find a life threatening condition and may then, in the future, do the same for other patients with similar symptoms.
Physicians themselves are concerned about the financial impact of practicing defensive medicine with regards to the rise in healthcare costs. However, changing the practice patterns of physicians will not be easy, despite the benefits to patients.
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