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Does "defensive medicine" really work?

A salient characteristic of medical malpractice awards is that they can amount to many thousands or even millions of dollars, depending upon the harm suffered by the patient. So it is no surprise that healthcare professionals and healthcare providers (and their insurers) will seek to avoid medical malpractice claims; one of the ways that many physicians use to try to avoid medical malpractice claims is known as "defensive medicine."

The concept behind defensive medicine is simple: to avoid the possibility of missing a low-probability cause of a patient's injury or illness, as well as to avoid the handmaiden of such misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose: a medical malpractice claim. 

Studies suggest that 90 percent or more of physicians engage in defensive medicine. The most common expressions of this practice are tests that even physicians will admit are not medically necessary but are used to "cover all the bases" with an eye toward avoiding litigation, along with correspondingly higher medical costs.

Whether defensive medicine is effective as a means of avoiding medical malpractice lawsuits has been and remains a subject of debate among doctors, healthcare insurers and legal professionals. A recent study suggests, however, that it is indeed effective. The study examines one of the symptoms of defensive medicine – higher spending per patient – in light of the number of medical malpractice claims. The authors of the study have concluded that there is a link between higher medical costs and fewer medical malpractice lawsuits.

It is unlikely that a single study will and the debate about whether the potential savings of defensive medicine in minimizing medical malpractice claims versus its higher costs to healthcare insurers and individual patients alike. One thing that is certain, though, is that in South Carolina incidents of medical malpractice will continue to occur no matter how cautious healthcare professionals try to be, and that when they happen the victims will continue to need experienced legal counsel to assist them with their claims for compensation.

Source: KPCC, "Does defensive medicine mean fewer medical malpractice suits?", Alex Proimos,  Nov.18, 2015

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