Defensive medicine: who does it help, if anybody?

On Behalf of | Jan 23, 2015 | Medical Malpractice

A diagnosis and treatment technique well-known to doctors is to put a patient through multiple forms of tests for various injuries, illnesses and conditions even when the physician is already fairly sure about what ails the patient. This practice is colloquially referred to as “defensive medicine.”

The idea that underlies defensive medicine is that doctors want to reduce their potential exposure to medical malpractice lawsuits by using a “shotgun” approach to diagnosis. The hope is that if the doctor was either mistaken in his or her estimation of the true nature of the patient’s problem, or may have not taken into account some additional problem, the extra tests will serve as a form of back-up for the doctor’s judgment, catching anything he or she may have missed.

Defensive medicine, superficially, at least, sounds like a good idea. In theory, at least, doctors reduce the risk of a misdiagnosis or delayed treatment of a condition that would not otherwise have been identified right away; the patient benefits from improved treatment, and is less likely to have a cause of action for medical malpractice; and thus doctors can keep their medical malpractice insurance rates under control.

In actual practice, however, practicing defensive medicine does not always live up to the theory. At least one study suggests that while defensive medicine can increase the patient’s cost of health care by 5-10 percent, the evidence that it reduces the risk of medical malpractice is inconclusive.

A comprehensive approach to holding down health care expenses and related insurance costs to both the doctor and the patient, including tort reform, is a possible way to realize the objective of cost control coupled with reduced legal liability for doctors, but this, too, seems hard to accurately assess in terms of costs of effectiveness.

What this means to you as a patient in South Carolina is that if you find yourself needing medical treatment, there is a good chance that your doctor may be subjecting you to additional tests and procedures that are of questionable necessity, which means that you may have to pay more for that treatment; but in the final analysis, your doctor can still make a mistake that harms you no matter how many batteries of tests you are put through.

If you do suffer harm as a result of a medical error, it remains sound advice to consult with a personal injury attorney to discuss your options for securing financial redress.


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