Paper from M.I.T. Health Economist Indicates “Defensive Medicine”

A new study done by researchers at Duke and M.I.T. argue that a fear of being held liable for medical malpractice does indeed result in additional and sometimes unnecessary medical tests. For years, congressmen and health care professionals argued that defensive medicine (practicing medicine to avoid litigation) was the primary reason that health care costs are on the rise. And now it might be proven.

Researchers found that the possibility of a lawsuit increased the intensity of the health care provided by about 5% and that those patients who received the extra care were no better off. But doctors campaigned that they are forced to do these unnecessary tests and procedures to protect themselves if a patient sues them.

Jonathan Gruber, a health economist at M.I.T. and an author of the paper said,

There is defensive medicine. But that defensive medicine is not explaining a large share of what’s driving U.S. health care costs.”

Mr. Gruber and his colleague Mr. Frakes from Duke researched how active duty members of the military operated under the health care system. Typically active duty members get access to government healthcare but are barred from suing government doctors and hospitals for malpractice (however family members can use government facilities and sue). Their study followed active duty members when due to a base closure forced these military men to use civilian hospitals, where they are permitted to sue. The result was an increase in their health care spending especially when it came to diagnostic tests. Similarly, it was shown that family members who use government facilities got more healthcare treatments and tests due to the fact that they might potentially sue.

Michelle Mello, a professor of law and health policy at Stanford said,

“It suggests that physicians change their behavior in response to liability considerations, but they don’t do it in a very calibrated way. They tend to make a lot of changes that don’t result in better patient care”

Mello suggests that when these healthcare professionals do extra treatments or testing to avoid liability, they are not necessarily taking any extra steps to make the patient healthier. Despite the numerous attempt by the federal government to limit medical liability, there has been no effort to eliminate legal rights altogether.

Currently, the only reaction to medical malpractice is putting a cap on monetary damages as dictated by the state (not the federal government). Gruber states that the paper is to show how there needs to be more realistic reform such as doctors being shielded if they show they provided a standard of care without having to do unnecessary tests.

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Melissa Thompson

Melissa is a mother of 2, lives in Utah, and writes for a multitude of sites. She is currently the EIC of and writes about health, wellness, and business topics.