Defensive medicine is the practice of employing diagnostic or therapeutic measures to safeguard against medical malpractice liability in excess of what is required solely as a protection against accusations of malpractice. Doctors sometimes order tests, procedures, or specialist visits to reduce their exposure to lawsuits. Other doctors practice defensive medicine by avoiding high-risk patients or procedures, limiting their exposure to potential litigation.
Defensive medicine has nothing to do with patient health and everything to do with shielding physicians from lawsuits. Physicians practice defensive medicine out of fear of litigation, or, in some extreme cases, to increase their reimbursements. Defensive medicine occurs at rates as high as 93 percent in America, particularly in high-risk specialties such as emergency medicine and obstetrics.
While defensive medicine may provide medical malpractice insurance savings for doctors, it increases healthcare costs for patients. Some estimates put defensive medicine healthcare spending at $650 billion nationally – roughly $100 a month for every American or 4.5 percent of our gross domestic product.
When a physician practices defensive medicine, not only are they trying to protect themselves from legal liability, they’re also subjecting their patients to unnecessary services. In an ironic twist, some elements of defensive medicine, such as unnecessary invasive procedures, are considered serious violations of the standard of care, which could be the basis for medical malpractice. Ordering too many CT scans can expose a patient to dangerous doses of radiation, and ordering a biopsy can expose a weak patient to adverse events.
Proponents of tort reform argue that medical malpractice damage caps will remove the fear of lawsuits and reduce defensive medicine; however, studies have shown that damage caps have no effect on physicians’ perceived malpractice risk. If damage caps don’t stem fear of litigation, then they won’t stem defensive medicine.
Defensive medicine is harmful to patients and their pocketbooks, but damage caps will do nothing to reduce it.