Fear of Malpractice Suits Increases Useless Medical Care by 5%

(p. B4) Researchers from Duke and M.I.T. . . . offer what is perhaps the most precise estimate of how much defensive medicine matters, at least for care in the hospital. They found that the possibility of a lawsuit increased the intensity of health care that patients received in the hospital by about 5 percent — and that those patients who got the extra care were no better off.

“There is defensive medicine,” said Jonathan Gruber, a health economist at M.I.T. and an author of the paper, which was published in draft form Monday [July 23, 2018] by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “But that defensive medicine is not explaining a large share of what’s driving U.S. health care costs.”

Mr. Gruber and Michael D. Frakes, a Duke economist and lawyer, looked at the health care system for active-duty members of the military. Under longstanding law, such patients get access to a government health care system but are barred from suing government doctors and hospitals for malpractice. Their family members can also use the military hospitals, but they can sue for malpractice if they wish.

Their study looked at what happened to the hospital care that military members received when a base closing forced them to use their benefits in civilian hospitals, where it was possible to sue. Spending on their health care increased, particularly on extra diagnostic tests.

They also found that, even within the military hospitals, family members who could sue tended to get more tests than those who could not.

For the full commentary, see:

Margot Sanger-Katz. “Doctors’ Fear of Lawsuits May Hit Patients in the Wallet, Study Hints.” The New York Times (Tuesday, July 23, 2018): B4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 23, 2018, and has the title “A Fear of Lawsuits Really Does Seem to Result in Extra Medical Tests.”)

The Frakes and Gruber working paper, mentioned above, is:

Frakes, Michael D., and Jonathan Gruber. “Defensive Medicine: Evidence from Military Immunity.” National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc., NBER Working Paper # 24846, July 2018.

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