How much is wasted on defensive medicine?

The Cost of Defensive Medicine on 3 Hospital Medicine Services

By Michael B. Rothberg, MD, MPH; Joshua Class, BS; Tara F. Bishop, MD, MPH; Jennifer Friderici, MS; Reva Kleppel, MPH, MSW; Peter K. Lindenauer, MD, MSS
JAMA Internal Medicine, September 15, 2014

The overuse of tests and procedures because of fear of malpractice litigation, known as defensive medicine, is estimated to cost $46 billion annually in the United States, but these costs have been measured only indirectly. We estimated the cost of defensive medicine on 3 hospital medicine services in a health system by having physicians assess the defensiveness of their own orders. We hypothesized that physicians who were concerned about being targeted by litigation would practice more defensively and have higher overall costs.


In this study of hospital medicine services at 3 institutions in a health system, 28% of orders and 13% of costs were judged to be at least partially defensive, but only 2.9% of costs were completely defensive. Most costs were due to potentially unnecessary hospitalization. Defensive medicine practices varied substantially, but physicians who wrote the most defensive orders spent less than those who wrote fewer such orders, highlighting the disconnect between physician beliefs about defensive medicine and their contribution to costs.

In 2008, Massachusetts internists reported that 27% of computed tomographic scans, 16% of laboratory tests, and 14% of hospital admissions were ordered owing to concerns about liability. We allowed our physicians to offer a graded response, which revealed that defensiveness is not absolute. Compared with the previous study, our respondents reported higher percentages of defensive medicine but lower percentages of completely defensive medicine (2% of radiology, 6% of laboratory testing, and 2% of hospital days).

In conclusion, although a large portion of hospital orders had some defensive component, our study found that few orders were completely defensive and that physicians’ attitudes about defensive medicine did not correlate with cost. Our findings suggest that only a small portion of medical costs might be reduced by tort reform.


The cost of defensive medicine

By Aaron Carroll
AcademyHealth Blog, September 15, 2014

I was so pleased to see a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, “The Cost of Defensive Medicine on 3 Hospital Medicine Services“.

As the researchers note, past studies have found that “27% of computed tomographic scans, 16% of laboratory tests, and 14% of hospital admissions were ordered owing to concerns about liability.” But such studies would include any level of defensiveness in the orders at all. We can realistically expect, however, that only completely defensive orders would be eliminated by tort reform. After all, if there are other reasons to order tests above our fears of being sued if we don’t, those reasons will still exist even after comprehensive malpractice reform became law.

If we assume that overall health care spending is about $2.7 trillion, then 2.9% of that would be about $78 billion. That’s not chump change, mind you, but it’s still a very small component of overall health care spending. Given that there’s little evidence that tort reform would lead to a significant reduction in this already small percentage of spending, there seems little reason to pursue it as a means to dramatically reduce health care spending in the United States.

From response by Uwe Reinhardt:

It is also ironic that the very folks who constantly bring up the refrain that “one size does not fit all” in health policy (and that in the land of McDonalds!) always clamor for a one-size-fits-all solution to malpractice: an upper limit on payments for pain and suffering.



By Don McCanne, MD

At forums discussing the high costs of health care and what can be done about it, inevitably the subject of malpractice comes up. People hold very strong views on the topic. Such discussions generate much heat, often blaming frivolous lawsuits, excessive defensive medicine, outrageous jury awards, and attorney greed, but we need to step back and see if we can generate a little more light and a little less heat.

We do need medical liability reform, but not for the reasons often given. The system simply does not work well for achieving its primary goal: compensating individuals who are victims of medical injury. Most individuals who experience medical injury are never compensated; the majority do not even file lawsuits. When lawsuits are filed, much of the costs are consumed by legal processes, including paying the fees for plaintiff and defense attorneys.

The reform that we do need, assuming that we agree that individuals should be compensated for medical injuries, is to end the emotionally painful, expensive tort process and replace it with a process of alternate dispute resolution - a process not unlike workers compensation wherein the injuries are acknowledged and appropriate compensation is made.

What about some of the issues that generate so much heat?

Frivolous lawsuits are not a problem. An attorney will not accept a case in which a medical injury has not occurred. The attorney will not invest time and the expenses of an investigation if there is no possibility for an award. It may be that the medical injury might have occurred because of factors not related to medical error, but that is the point of discovery and of the followup trial, if necessary. These are not frivolous actions.

What about the costs of defensive medicine - ordering tests or procedures that are totally unnecessary but ordered only to provide defense in the event of a future lawsuit. The study by Michael Rothberg and his colleagues really helps us understand better the extent of this problem. Most tests and procedures ordered that were thought to provide some insulation against potential lawsuits were actually tests that were medically indicated and would assist in providing the best care for the patient. That is, most medicine that has been labeled as defensive medicine is simply appropriate health care. Considering this, very little could be saved by clamping down on defensive medicine.

This study supposedly does show that almost 3 percent of care was completely defensive, not an insignificant amount. But think about this. What test would a physician ever order that had a 100 percent chance that the result would provide absolutely no benefit in management of the patient? If such a test were omitted then there is no possibility of a lawsuit for having failed to obtain that test. Low yield tests may be considered to be defensive, but as long as there is a real possibility that the results could change the patient’s outcome favorably, then clinical judgement should be used to determine if the test should be ordered. If the test cannot possibly change the outcome - a no yield test - then that test should not be ordered. But that has to be a very rare occurrence, far less than the 3 percent reported in this study.

What about excessive jury awards, which are coupled with attorney “greed”? Awards that compensate for specific losses such as medical bills and loss of income are not excessive; they are simply compensating losses. General damages, often considered pain and suffering awards, along with punitive damages, are where juries may be particularly generous with rewards. However, even there judges tend to reduce the awards to levels that most people would consider appropriate.

The award for general damages - non-economic damages - has received much attention, especially from conservatives, since placing a cap on such awards seems to be a simple way of limiting “outrageous” awards. Indirectly it would also limit payments to “greedy” attorneys since their fees usually come out of this portion of the award. It has been suggested that general damages should be limited to $250,000 as in California, though California now has a ballot measure to increase the cap to $1,000,000 and index it for inflation. The problem is that this does nothing to correct the fundamental structural deficiencies in our system of compensating for medical injury - a system that fails most individuals experiencing medical injury. Instead of fine tuning our system, we should be replacing it with a system that works.

One more very important point. Why does the United States have such a great problem with medical malpractice lawsuits when most other nations that have universal systems and much lower health care costs have much less of a problem? Think about that. In other nations everyone receives health care. They do not have intrusive intermediaries who tell you where you can go or what care you can have. They do not expose you to financial hardship simply because you have a medical need. Our dysfunctional system breeds animosity which is a setup for litigation. Their systems are egalitarian - health care is a given. Why would they want to sue their doctor?

Under a single payer national health program physicians are free to obtain the most appropriate care for their patients. An egalitarian, high-performance health care system would do more than anything else to reduce the scourge of medical malpractice lawsuits.