Survey: Fear of lawsuits behind proliferation of medical tests

    A new survey of emergency room doctors suggests that physicians are greatly influenced by fears about being sued.

    Dr. Theodore Christopher seems a little nostalgic. Christopher runs the emergency room at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

    He says in the old days, a doctor would check out a patient with stomach trouble, and then perhaps watch and wait, a day or so, before ordering expensive tests.

    “Because most patient do get better. And if they do get worse, maybe then send the patient for an X-ray,” Christopher said. “Now I think the reflex is to right away send the patient to the emergency room. Nobody wants to miss anything.”

    Christopher says his practice pays about $75,000 a year to buy medical liability insurance for each attending physicians. He says colleagues in some states pay a lot less.

    “I think–and I’ve heard–in Texas and California, the lawyers, quite frankly, have figured out a different way to make a living than suing the medical profession,” Christopher said.

    In a new study, more than half of nearly 1,800 ER doctors said fear of lawsuits is the top reason they order so many tests.

    The American College of Emergency Physicians conducted the survey. The doctors group is lobbying for liability reforms to hold down medical costs.

    Seven years ago, the Pennsylvania court changed some of its medical malpractice rules. Since then, medical malpractice case filings and verdicts have declined steadily.

    In a statement this month Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald Castille said the state’s medical malpractice crisis is over.

    Courts spokesman Art Heinz said the Commonwealth is moving in the right direction.

    “There is reason to believe that the state courts have addressed medical malpractice abuses and have taken steps and actions to curb those abuses and to further bolster public trust and confidence,” Heinz said.

    ER physician Theodore Christopher said he hasn’t seen that confidence translate into cheaper insurance costs, and he says many doctors are still practicing “defensive medicine.”

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