Doctors order unnecessary tests to avoid lawsuits, study suggests

Earlier this week on our Chicago medical malpractice law blog, we discussed how a doctor’s assumptions about a patient’s symptoms or health condition can be a form of medical malpractice if the doctor fails to take measures to conduct a thorough examination of the patient in order to rule out any other serious illnesses or complications. But could ordering X-rays, blood tests, ultrasounds and other lab tests too soon or too often also be a form of medical negligence?

According to the results of a study that surveyed more than 1,200 orthopedic surgeons in the U.S., doctors order billions of dollars of unnecessary tests each year, primarily out of fear of being sued by their patients. Although medical tests are important for ruling out serious illnesses such as cancer or other diseases when diagnosing patients, failing to consider the real reasons for ordering or not ordering a blood test or CT scan could prevent a doctor or surgeon from keeping his or her patient’s best interests and health as the main focus during examinations.

Many argue that ordering unnecessary tests is simply a form of fraud. According to the results of the survey that were recently published in The American Journal of Orthopedics, patients and health insurance companies are spending at least $2 billion on unnecessary tests, scans and lab work.

Others argue that doctors should communicate more effectively with their patients regarding the benefits of certain tests in order to determine if the tests should be performed or if the tests are even necessary. Doctors also should question their own reasoning for ordering certain ultrasounds or lab work. Is the test necessary in order to rule out an illness that could very well be affecting a patient’s health? Or is the test being ordered in an effort to simply confirm what a doctor already knows based on his or her examination of a patient?

Based on the survey of orthopedic surgeons, about 96 percent admitted to ordering medical tests and lab work that they thought was unnecessary in order to prevent possibly being sued for malpractice. However, doctors claim that this is only “defensive medicine” and is necessary at times in order to make sure that a doctor does not misdiagnose a patient.

Source: The Columbus Dispatch, “Doctors go on the defensive with tests,” Lora Hines, Feb. 20, 2012

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