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Defensive Medicine: The Undoing of Sound Medical Practice

“I will prescribe regimen for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.” Hippocrates.

This is the oath that every physician is bound to follow. Over the years, however, some members of the medical profession have been chipping away at the oath’s core by engaging in ‘defensive medicine.’

Defensive medicine refers to the act of recommending diagnostic tests or courses of treatment that are not necessarily in the best interest of the patient but serve as a protective measure against the patient becoming a plaintiff in the future.

What Could Go Wrong?

On the surface, it would seem that the ordering of more diagnostic tests might directly benefit a patient. Researchers from Duke and M.I.T., however, found that patients who received extra care were no better off. These researchers noted that the possibility of a lawsuit increased the intensity of health care that patients received in the hospital by about 5 percent, with the patient seeing no direct benefit from the additional attention.

In the absence of a discernible positive impact, many worry that the extra care afforded by defensive medicine can lead to a possible negative result – the delay of a proper diagnosis. By ordering extra tests, a medical professional could very well be slowing down the normal diagnostic process. While many doctors rely on diagnostic tests for the process of elimination, there exists a rate of diminishing returns. By waiting for extra, unnecessary tests a medical professional runs the risk of delaying the diagnosis which, in turn, delays the start of the proper course of treatment.

“(The study) suggests that physicians change their behavior in response to liability considerations, but they don’t do it in a very calibrated way,” said Michelle Mello, a professor of law and health policy at Stanford, who has studied medical malpractice. “They tend to make a lot of changes that don’t result in better patient care.” Moreover, these unnecessary tests and procedures, might not only delay an ultimate diagnosis, but may directly inflict harm on the patient as well.

Finally, defensive medicine fundamentally changes the nature of the physician-patient relationship, and may ultimately lead to its degradation. This is something that neither the physician nor the patient should ever want.

If you or a loved one has suffered a worsening condition due to diagnostic errors or a delayed diagnosis, it is crucial to discuss your matter with a skilled medical malpractice attorney.

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