Doctors' practice of "defensive medicine" widespread, costly

Kay Lazar, Globe Staff

The fear of being sued is driving Massachusetts physicians to order many tests, procedures, referrals to specialists and even hospitalizations for consumers that aren’t needed and drive up health costs by more than $1.4 billion a year, according to a new study that is the first of its kind.

The Massachusetts Medical Society surveyed 900 of its members, including family doctors, obstetricians and gynecologists and general surgeons, who reported practicing so-called “defensive medicine.”

The report found that 83 percent of physicians surveyed reported practicing defensive medicine and that an average of 18 to 28 percent of tests, procedures and referrals and consultations, and 13 percent of hospitalizations were ordered solely out of fear of being sued.

Thirty-eight percent of the physicians surveyed also said they reduced the number of high-risk services they performed, with orthopedic surgeons, obstetricians/gynecologists and general surgeons the most likely to say lowered their high -risk services.

Patients may be exposed to extra risk because of unneeded tests, said Dr. Alan Woodward, vice chair of the Medical Society’s Committee on Professional Liability. For example, he said, patients who have unnecessary imaging tests face risks associated with radiation and allergic reaction to contrast dyes.

The full report can be found at:

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