DEFENSIVE MEDICINE; an Unhealthy Cost

Article excerpt

As a matter of principle, tough medical malpractice laws make sense.

Doctors sometimes make terrible mistakes - and the prospects of a costly lawsuit no doubt makes them a little more cautious.

Many readers probably recall that a Tampa surgeon amputated the wrong leg of a patient in the mid-1990s.

It turned out, however, that he wasn't nearly as hapless as he first appeared.

The New York Times reported that he had been provided with the wrong written instructions and, in addition, "the wrong leg had been sterilized and draped for surgery."

Of course, someone should pay when a hospital or physician makes a mistake that leads to a bad outcome. And the worse the mistake or outcome, the bigger the judgment.

But while malpractice laws do some good, there also are some undesirable side effects.

THE IMPACT

For example, 73 percent of doctors polled by Gallup admitted that, sometime in the past year, they had practiced "defensive medicine" - ordering tests or treatments not so much to help the patient as to build a defense in case of a lawsuit.

Those physicians said they thought that, on average, 26 percent of all health care costs are for defensive medicine.

That probably is a gross overestimation.

Still, it shows that the fear of lawsuits drive up medical costs, at least to some extent.

Cecil B. Wilson, a physician who serves as president-elect of the American Medical Association's Board of Trustees, made that point during a recent session with The Times-Union editorial board.

Physicians, he emphasized, are afraid of being "hauled into court."

Even if they win, the cases often drag on a long time.

He suggested that Florida adopt "safe harbor rules. …