The Myth of Defensive Medicine
Cross-posted from The Tortellini
Throughout all the big medical malpractice debates in recent years, doctors' groups and their political supporters have regularly insisted that fear of lawsuits forces physicians to practice expensive "defensive medicine." The idea is that to avoid suits, doctors prescribe unnecessary tests and treatments, thus driving up the cost of health care.
This argument always seemed to me pretty ridiculous, since performing unnecessary procedures on people is itself a form of malpractice. But also, in an era of managed care and increasingly stingy health care insurance coverage, average Americans never seem to be suffering from an excess of health care, at least not in their family doctor's offices.
A story this weekend in the Austin-American Statesman confirms my suspicions. The story is about a case headed to the Texas Supreme Court over an interesting technical issue, but the details show why the "defensive medicine" argument is such an empty one.
The plaintiff, Sharon Boyd, 57, made four different visits over 16 months to three different doctors, complaining of rectal bleeding and constipation. Not one of them ordered a single diagnostic test, not even a colonoscopy, which is recommended for everyone over 50, bleeding or not. Finally, 3 years after her initial complaints, Boyd demanded a colonoscopy. Turns out she had stage 4 colon cancer. She died not long after finding a lawyer. Cases like these are just far too common for defensive medicine to be anything but a myth...