New Study Finds 91% of Physicians Practice Defensive Medicine

Mark Crane

June 28, 2010

June 28, 2010 — The fear of being sued for medical malpractice is pervasive, leading 91% of physicians across all specialty lines to practice defensive medicine — ordering more tests and procedures than necessary to protect themselves from lawsuits — a new study finds.

A survey by researchers from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City, also found that the same overwhelming percentage of physicians believe that tort reform measures to provide better protections against unwarranted malpractice suits are needed before any significant decrease in the ordering of unnecessary medical tests can be achieved.

Investigators questioned 2416 physicians from a variety of practice and specialty backgrounds in a survey conducted between June 25, 2009, and October 31, 2009. Their findings were published today in the June 28 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"Physicians feel they are vulnerable to malpractice lawsuits even when they practice competently within the standard of care," said Tara Bishop, MD, associate, Division of General Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and coauthor of the study, in a news release. "The study shows that an overwhelming majority of physicians support tort reform to decrease malpractice lawsuits and that unnecessary testing, a contributor to rising healthcare costs, will not decrease without it."

Physicians were asked to rate their level of agreement to 2 statements:

  • "Doctors order more tests and procedures than patients need to protect themselves against malpractice suits," and

  • "Unnecessary use of diagnostic tests will not decrease without protections for physicians against unwarranted malpractice suits."

There were no statistically significant differences between sex, geographic location, specialty category, or type of practice. The largest difference was that 92.6% of male physicians said they practice defensive medicine vs 86.5% of female physicians.

Although physicians in relatively low-risk specialties such as general internal medicine and pediatrics are much less likely to be sued for malpractice than obstetric/gynecologic specialists and emergency physicians, their fear is just as real, Dr. Bishop asserted in an interview with Medscape Medical News. "There's just a visceral response to the word 'malpractice,' " she said. "The entire medical community worries about being pulled into a lawsuit."

Determining the true costs of defensive medicine may be impossible because so many factors go into decisions about ordering tests, Dr. Bishop noted. Malpractice fears play a large role, but so does a desire to be thorough and careful. In a fee-for-service system that often rewards overuse, it is difficult to say how large a part defensive medicine plays in the decision to order a test.

A 2003 study by the US Department of Health and Human Services estimated the cost of defensive medicine at $60 billion a year, but the American Medical Association pegs it at $200 billion. A 2008 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers' Health Research Institute calculated the cost of defensive medicine at $210 billion per year, or 10% of all healthcare spending.

The new Mt. Sinai study coincides with several earlier surveys about how prevalent defensive medicine is. Some of the findings of those studies follow here.

  • Ninety percent of physicians said they practice defensive medicine, according to a poll published in April by Jackson Healthcare, a medical staffing and information technology company. About three quarters of physicians surveyed said defensive medicine decreases patient access to healthcare and will exacerbate the growing physician shortage.

  • A 2008 study by the Massachusetts Medical Society found that 83% of its physicians practice defensive medicine at a cost of at least $1.4 billion a year in that state alone. More than 20% of x-rays, computed tomography scans, magnetic resonance images, and ultrasounds; 18% of laboratory tests; 28% of specialty referrals; and 13% of hospital admissions were ordered for defensive purposes.

  • A survey of 824 Pennsylvania physicians, published in 2005 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 93% admit to risk-aversion tactics such as overordering tests, abandoning high-risk procedures, and avoiding the sickest of patients.

"We practice maximalist medicine to avoid missing any problem our clinical judgment tells us may be extremely remote," said Alan C. Woodward, MD, an emergency physician and past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, to Medscape Medical News. Defensive medicine is rampant because "the threat of being sued is pervasive, and doctors simply don't trust the legal system."

In an invited commentary accompanying the Mt. Sinai study, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) acknowledged that consensus on Capitol Hill about tort reform "has been an elusive commodity" because of division and partisanship. "It is my hope that, as the American people see more evidence that they are paying for redundant and unuseful medical procedures, they will demand in larger numbers that real reforms be enacted to address this problem," Sen. Hatch writes. "That is what makes studies like the one by Bishop, et al., so important."

Arch Intern Med. 2010:170:1081-1084.

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