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Is Defensive Medicine Driving Up Healthcare Costs?

Is Defensive Medicine Driving Up Healthcare Costs?

At Buttafuoco & Associates, we often hear it stated as fact: the risk of frivolous lawsuits drives up the cost of health care. Or that malpractice lawsuits and premiums for malpractice insurance are squarely to blame for out-of-control healthcare costs.

In reality, the malpractice system only makes up a fraction of healthcare costs in the United States. In terms of dollars and cents, while malpractice lawsuits are not to blame for increasing medical bills, they can have an impact on how doctors practice medicine, leading to what’s often called “defensive medicine.”
In this article, we’ll define defensive medicine, why doctors might practice defensive medicine, and what it means for healthcare costs and maybe even your health.

What is Defensive Medicine?

Defensive medicine refers to when medical professionals order excessive tests, procedures, or treatments primarily to protect themselves from liability rather than to help the patient. While this approach minimizes legal risks, it can sometimes result in unnecessary medical interventions and increased healthcare costs.

Our medical malpractice lawyer serving Northern New Jersey recognizes the delicate balance between providing quality care and safeguarding against potential litigation, advocating for fair practices that prioritize patient well-being. The USC Center for Health Policy and Economics estimates that at least 60% and as many as 90% of US doctors practice “defensive medicine,” but they also find that it works. Indeed, physicians who incur higher costs by ordering additional tests and procedures are sued less often.

There are a few explanations for this. For example, a jury might not find a physician liable for an error if they had exhausted all reasonable treatment options. It’s also possible that by being more thorough in their medical treatment, physicians simply commit fewer medical errors, leading to fewer instances of actual malpractice.

Does Defensive Medicine Drive Up Costs?

We know why physicians practice defensive medicine, but does it drive-up costs? According to a report from The Upshot from NYTimes and a 2019 paper from the American Economic Journal, it might, and those patients aren’t necessarily better off.

It’s important to note that it’s difficult to study defensive medicine because patients have a right to sue nearly everywhere in the United States. Basically, if there’s no comparison, how can we really know how much the threat of legal action changes how physicians behave and the choices they make? There have been bold estimates that nearly a quarter of healthcare costs were a result of unnecessary procedures due to defensive medical practice, but these numbers were impossible to verify.

Health policy researchers Michael Frakes and Jonathan Gruber, however, found a useful point of comparison in the military medical system, where active-duty members do not have the right to sue for malpractice. They estimated that if patients have the right to sue, this increased the amount of medical care they received by roughly 5%, but those patients were not any better off. Even family members of military personnel—who have the right to sue for malpractice in those facilities—routinely received more tests and procedures.

When is Defensive Medicine Medical Malpractice?

It’s hard to know whether defensive medicine is impacting your healthcare costs directly, but unnecessary tests and procedures can certainly have a huge impact on your life and livelihood. Our Northern New Jersey medical malpractice lawyers urge you to remember that unnecessary testing and treatments can be considered medical malpractice. Many medical treatments can have severe side-effects or burden you with high medical costs.

If you believe that you received unnecessary treatment that resulted in harm, don’t hesitate to get in touch with a Northern New Jersey medical malpractice attorney.

Call 1-800-NOW-HURT for a free consultation with our experienced team at Buttafuoco & Associates.


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