According to a study published in the British Medical Journal on November 4, more expensive doctors may be
excessively treating their patients to avoid being hit with malpractice lawsuits.
Researchers found that the more tests and treatments that doctors in the United States use, the less of a chance they will be sued for malpractice.
Approximately 24,000 physicians in the state of Florida were tracked over a 9 year period, and those that spent the most health-care resources on patients that were hospitalized were found to also have the lowest rate of being sued. This correlation persisted across seven different medical specialties in the physicians studied.
In one instance, the study showed that the least expensive internal medicine doctors had a five times greater chance of being sued than the most expensive doctors. According to The Washington Post, the link identified does not necessarily mean the quality of health care has gone up.
Lead author Anupam Jena, from Harvard Medical School, said that physicians might be prescribing medication to patients that may not necessarily need the medication, in order to reduce their own liability.
We need to figure out whether it’s the case that spending more by physicians reduces liability. The overall goals in health-care reform are to reduce spending. So that strategy has relied on physicians to reduce spending and overutilization, but by doing so you could imagine their liability risk goes up, and that could be a potential obstacle to getting physicians to buy in to what we’re trying to do as a society with health care.
This interpretation of the data suggests that the more costly doctors are prescribing medication in situations where it might not be necessary. Experts call this “defensive medicine”, in which the goal of the physician is to minimize the threat of malpractice accusations rather than to improve the well-being of the patient.
The excessive testing and prescription of medications also results in bigger bills, which in turn put more stress on the health care system. Therefore, if health care reforms were to lead to a reduction in spending and ultimately a reduction in treatment, it seems plausible that a side effect would be a spike in malpractice lawsuits in situations where the patient didn’t feel their doctor did enough.