The Staggering Cost Of Defensive Medicine

You have to wonder how many people are actually aware of the enormous impact our “lawsuit lottery” culture has on medical expenses. Sure, it’s easy to count the costs of gargantuan awards paid out to victims of malpractice, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Once you look below the surface, there is a mountain of unnecessary costs that ends up being passed on to patients because doctors fear being sued.

Take a look at the results from a Journal of the American Medical Association survey and you will see the titanic scope of the problem:

“More than nine out of 10 doctors surveyed admit that they practice some form of “defensive medicine” – ordering unnecessary tests or jettisoning potentially troublesome patients to head off malpractice lawsuits.

The survey of 824 Pennsylvania physicians in six high-risk specialty practices, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found:

Almost 60 percent said they often ordered more diagnostic tests than necessary.

52 percent referred patients to other specialists even when the referral was unnecessary.

About 42 percent said concerns about malpractice lawsuits had forced them to restrict some practices – eliminating procedures prone to complications, such as trauma surgery, or avoiding patients with complex medical problems or those who appeared litigious.

When asked to cite their most recent defensive act, more than half of emergency physicians, orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons mentioned ordering an unnecessary imaging procedure – a CT, MRI or x-ray they didn’t believe was necessary.

Women may suffer more than men from the effects of defensive medicine, because doctors specializing in obstetrics and gynecology said they sometimes limited obstetric care and some radiologists reported that they had stopped reading mammograms.

Overall, 93 percent of doctors surveyed said they practiced defensive medicine. “Defensive medicine is part of the social cost of a medical malpractice crisis,” according to the researchers who conducted the survey.

“Ordering costly imaging studies seems merely wasteful, but other defensive behaviors may reduce access to care and even pose risks of physical harm to patients.”

A second study published in JAMA found that states enacting malpractice reforms, particularly caps on damages in lawsuits, showed a larger increase in the number of physicians than those states not enacting reforms.”

Whenever anyone advocates bringing a little sanity into our legal system by limiting how much money can be won in these medical malpractice suits, we hear a lot of talk about “the little guy.”

“What about the little guy? Why shouldn’t he become ridiculously wealthy if a doctor makes a mistake? Don’t you care about the little guy?”

Hey, how about all the “little guys” (i.e. all the rest of us) who end up paying for tests we don’t need? How about all the extra money we pay for insurance? How about the patients who end up wasting their time talking to specialists just because their family doctor wants to CYA?

So many people have this idea that the lawyers who win these cases are sticking it to doctors, hospitals, and corporations — and they’re rich — so if they have to pay out a fortune, who cares, right? Wrong, because the people who really get screwed because of these extra costs are you and me, because all the doctors, hospitals, and corporations do is add that extra money right on to the end of our bills.

Legal costs are not the only thing that leads to high medical bills, but they’re a significant part of the problem and until we get control of the lawyers, we have no hope of truly controlling health care costs.

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