Medical Care

Defensive Medicine and Malpractice Claims

Physicians who spend more on their patients’ health care have fewer malpractice claims, a study led by researchers at Harvard Medical School has found.

Nearly three-quarters of physicians report practicing defensive medicine, which is broadly defined as the ordering of tests, procedures, physician consultations and other medical services solely to reduce risk of malpractice claims. Defensive medicine is estimated to cost the U.S. as much as $50 billion annually.

But whether or not higher spending by physicians actually reduces malpractice claims is unknown. One view is that better communication and early apologies for errors can reduce a physician’s liability. However, greater spending by physicians could also either reduce errors or signal to patients, attorneys and courts that despite an error, a physician was exhaustive in his or her care.

The research was led by Anupam Jena, associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital. The findings, published in the BMJ, combined data on 18,352,391 hospital admissions in Florida during 2000-2009 with data on the malpractice histories of the 24,637 physicians who treated patients during those hospitalizations. Overall, 4,342 malpractice claims were filed against physicians (2.8 percent per physician-year), with malpractice claims rates ranging from 1.6 percent per physician-year in pediatrics to 4.1 percent per physician-year in general surgery and obstetrics and gynecology.

Jena and colleagues at the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California and at Stanford University found that in six out of seven specialties, higher-spending physicians faced fewer malpractice claims, accounting for differences in patient case-mix across physicians.

For example, among internal medicine physicians, those in the bottom 20 percent of hospital spending (approximately $19,000 per hospitalization) faced a 1.5 percent probability of being involved in an alleged malpractice incident the following year, compared to 0.3 percent in the top spending quintile (approximately $39,000 per hospital admission).

Similar findings were seen in C-section rates among obstetricians. High C-section rates are commonly considered a signal of defensive practice, and obstetricians who performed relatively more C-sections were less likely to face a malpractice claim.

“It has remarkably been unknown whether defensive medicine ‘works’ or whether the majority of U.S. physicians could be incorrect in believing that greater spending is associated with reducing malpractice liability,” said Jena.


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