Defensive Medicine Costs; Litigation-Inspired Tests Hinder Needed Ones

Article excerpt


President Obama's recent tepid foray into the medical malpractice quagmire has hardly shone the spotlight on this hotly contested issue.

Nonetheless, doctors have long contended that unpredictable jury awards result in lawyers flooding the system with often frivolous lawsuits. This spate of lawsuits culminates in escalating malpractice premiums, a cost eventually passed on to the patient. Politicians in bed with the trial lawyers have religiously fought any attempt to curb the problem.

The status quo forces doctors to resort to a process known as defensive medicine - ordering tests, procedures and specialty consults that patients may not need simply to protect themselves from lawsuits. A Massachusetts Medical Society survey questioned doctors directly and found 83 percent of those surveyed ordered such unnecessary interventions solely to shield themselves from the tort mafia.

Astonishingly, doctors on average deemed 18 percent to 28 percent of orders and consultations they requested to be medically unwarranted. It should be noted that defensive medicine carries a hefty price tag. Amitabh Chandra of Harvard University conservatively estimates the annual cost of defensive medicine at $60 billion. Other research places the yearly cost at roughly $200 billion.

Perhaps the greatest price associated with our litigious society is not the cost per se of these unnecessary medical interventions, but their cost in opportunity.

Medical resources are scarce In a hospital There are only so many CT scan machines and only so many radiologists to read them. When fear of lawyers causes practically every patient with a bump or bruise who enters the emergency room to get a CT scan whether it's clinically warranted or not, critically ill patients who need the scan inevitably must wait their turn.

While radiologists read unneeded tests, precious minutes tick by with patients suffering from possibly fatal conditions such as subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) or septic shock (overwhelming infection) waiting quietly in the queue.

Another opportunity cost of jackpot justice is its effect on the time doctors can spend with patients. …