A new study in the BMJ suggests that the more services a physician provides to his or her patients, the less likely the physician is to be sued for malpractice. The study examined the use of resources by attending physicians in several Florida acute care hospitals during a ten-year period from 2000-2009, in relation to the number of malpractice claims brought against the physicians in the year following care. Researchers found that physicians who billed higher than average hospital charges were sued less often than lower-billing physicians.
The study builds on evidence that most physicians in the United States report practicing “defensive medicine”, commonly understood to be “medical care provided to patients solely to reduce the threat of malpractice liability rather than to further diagnosis or treatment.” Prior to this study, no research had been published on whether greater resource use by physicians is associated with reduced claims for malpractice.
The researchers focused on physicians from seven specialties, including obstetrics, which tends to have a higher rate of malpractice claims than other specialties. The evidence clearly showed that a physician’s risk of being sued for malpractice was reduced among those who performed and billed for more services. However, the authors noted that the data only show a correlation. Further research is necessary to understand why higher spending is linked to a lower risk of malpractice claims.
Perhaps the greatest value from this study is that the results corroborate the belief that defensive medicine reduces the likelihood of claims for malpractice. Interestingly, the authors note that the effectiveness of defensive medicine could be a reason why efforts to reduce physician spending have been difficult.
The full study is available online at: http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h5516-0.