New study says that lawsuits do not lead to "defensive medicine"

You often hear doctors or hospitals complain that the prospect of being sued by patients causes them to practice “defensive medicine,” i.e., to order more tests and drive up costs that would otherwise be avoided if they were not worried about medical malpractice lawsuits. A recent study by the Rand Institute published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine says that is not true. The study looked at thousands of patients who were treated in the Emergency Room in three states (Georgia, South Carolina and Texas) that had recently changed their law to make it much harder to sue a doctor or a hospital, and they compared the number of tests ordered to a similar group of patients in states that made it easier to sue doctors. If physicians truly where practicing “defensive medicine,” then you would expect that the number of tests and medical costs to go down after the state passed laws to reduce the threat of a lawsuit. However, this new study showed that the change in the law did not cause doctors to order less tests; instead, the number of tests ordered was generally the same both before and after laws were passed which made it harder to sue doctors.

These results probably do not surprise lawyers who are experienced in medical malpractice cases, but they are welcome news. It is always easy to blame lawyers or injured patients for the increase in healthcare costs, but that is certainly true in the context of this recent study.