“Defensive Medicine” Is Not a Significant Driver of Medical Costs

Medical malpractice is a reality in the United States. Almost 100,000 patients die annually because of medical mistakes. The number of medical errors at California hospitals has not declined in the past decade. More troubling is the fact that new studies indicate that medical error rates and adverse outcomes are grossly underreported.

California was among the first states to enact so-called "medical malpractice reform " in 1976 by passing laws to protect bad medical providers and penalize innocent patients. Despite the substantial numbers of patients suffering from medical malpractice injuries, more states, have imposed draconian limits on the damages an injured patient can recover.

Increasing health care costs are one of the key talking points anti-patient politicians across the country use to support unfair legislation. Many of these politicians continue to promote the myth that so-called "defensive medicine" is one of the primary reasons medical costs are skyrocketing.

"Defensive medicine" is a term given to procedures allegedly ordered primarily to help a doctor avoid a medical malpractice lawsuit. Supporters of tort reform say that large payouts for medical negligence lawsuits force doctors to perform unnecessary procedures that can actually be detrimental to patient outcomes. But in California this argument, makes no sense since the maximum amount of damages for pain and suffering that any patient can recover, even if the patient loses all four limbs, or is totally paralyzed, is only $250,000. And that paltry sum has been the maximum amount recoverable for over 30 years!

A new report issued by the Center for Progressive Reform debunks the defensive medicine theory and indicates that this argument hides the real factors driving up medical costs: expensive prescription drugs, demand for state-of-the-art procedures and an aging population with chronic diseases.

"Tort reform proposals aren't about reducing the cost of health care," one of the study's authors concluded. "They're about increasing medical malpractice insurance companies' profits."

The study found that proponents of tort reform often use an over-inclusive definition of what procedures constitute "defense medicine," ignoring other factors that contribute to the proliferation of nonessential medical services. Study authors say it is impossible to parse out the various motivations contributing to a patient receiving a nonessential procedure such as a doctor's desire to please a patient, financial incentives, patient demands based on drug company advertising and familial pressures.

Specifically addressing politicians' concerns regarding medical malpractice payouts, the study's authors show that medical malpractice litigation constitutes only a negligible portion of overall health care costs. The data indicates that the cost of paying and defending medical malpractice lawsuits makes up less than 0.3 percent of all health care spending and that tort reform would not slow the pace of health care cost growth.

"Studies show that if aggressive civil justice restrictions could reduce malpractice premiums by 10 percent, the savings would equate to just slightly more than one tenth of 1 percent of total health care costs," the study authors wrote. "In comparison, health care expenditures have grown at a rate between 3.6 and 6.5 percent per year over the last four decades."

The study authors concluded that medical malpractice litigation was simply a symptom of the health care system's failure to reduce the number of medical mistakes that injure patients. Experts say the focus on hindering medical malpractice lawsuits not only is misplaced, but that preventing injured patients from recovering damages will not save a single life or prevent a single medical malpractice incident.