Which doctors practice defensive medicine? Only those who are still breathing. The president, however, wasn’t convinced of this reality when he spoke to the nation on September 9th at a joint session of Congress.
"I don’t believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I have talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs."
May be contributing? Mr. President, if I 'may', in the gray and nebulous world of medicine, one truth is certain; defensive medicine cost billions of health care dollars every year. Physicians hold this truth to be self evident.
One month after the president’s speech, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a report that reversed it’s own prior conclusions on the value of tort reform. It now states that tort reform could reduce "the use of diagnostic tests and other health care services when providers recommend those services principally to reduce their potential exposure to lawsuits." The report also notes evidence that lower medical malpractice costs results in lower Medicare health care medical services. Shocking conclusions.
I wonder how many tax dollars were spent on these studies whose conclusions were already known in the guts of every practicing physician in the country. Aren’t we supposed to conduct studies when we are uncertain of the outcome? What’s next? A study to determine if the elderly will outlive their children?
CBO extimates that tort reform would reduce health care costs by 0.5% annually (0.2% from lower medical malpractice premiums and 0.3% in less defensive medicine expenses), saving $11 billion in 2009. In fairness to these low estimates, the report points out that some of savings have already occurred from state tort reform programs. Over the next decade, CBO estimates that tort reform would result in $54 billion in savings.
CBO included typical tort reform features in its analysis. Among them is the fair-share rule, which would replace joint-and-several liability. ‘Fair-share’ means that a defendant would only be responsible for damages in proportion to his liability. In other words, if a physician or a hospital was 2% responsible for the injury, then they would not be at risk for all of the damages. Wow, what a progressive concept! Imagine being responsible only for your share of the injury. Still think we don’t need tort reform?
Trial attorneys argue that CBO extimates of cost savings from tort reform are inaccurate. I agree, but unlike these supporters of the status quo, I think the CBO has underestimated the savings that tort reform would deliver.
While I am not an economist, I suspect that CBO estimates are far too low. How can you quantify the costs of defensive medicine? While it is easy to define defensive medicine in a blog post, it’s a murky issue in the real world. When physicians defensively order specialty consultations, CAT scans, emergency room visits after hours, we always provide medical justification. You can study every medical chart in the country, and you will never the following notation: MRI ordered for defensive purposes. Since the bulk of defensive testing is deeply camouflaged, how can we estimate its cost?
I don’t even think that we physicians always know if our tests are defensive as there is often a combination of medical necessity and litigation fear present.
Estimates of defensive medical costs are further hampered because they are not one time expenses. As every physician knows, an unnecessary CAT scan lights the fuse for a medical cascade when the initial scan shows trivial and irrelevant ‘abnormalities’ that lead to more scans and specialty consultations.
I wonder what the next CBO report will show? While their current estimates of the costs of defensive medicine are low, at least they’ve admitted their existence and significance. Will the president now issue a more definitive statement on this issue to clarify his limp remark in his September health care speech? If the president pushed for fair tort reform, he would earn a durable peace with the medical community. Imagine, two peace prizes in one year.