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Is Your Doctor Ordering Needless Tests?

One new study suggests most doctors practice defensive medicine to protect against lawsuits

man with wires

— David Waldorf/Getty Images

Ever wonder if all the tests your doctor prescribes are really necessary?

A new study looked at just that question and found that most physicians believe their peers do indeed order needless medical tests and procedures.

Why all the tests? Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York found that 91 percent of 1,231 physicians surveyed said doctors order excessive tests for patients to protect themselves against malpractice suits, says Tara Bishop, M.D., coauthor of the study. The findings of the study were published in the June 28 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. And Bishop says they suggest one reason it is so hard to rein in the costs of health care.

“It’s really hard to quantify how much this problem costs the American health care system,” Bishop says. “One of the estimates is that it’s $60 billion a year, some argue that it is actually more than that.”

She noted that the potential threat of a malpractice lawsuit was a constant concern for the doctors she surveyed. According to the study, more than two malpractice claims are paid for every 100 physicians.

The study bolsters earlier research by the American Medical Association that found a sharp increase in the cost of potentially unnecessary cancer testing among Medicare patients between 1999 and 2006.

But other health policy experts are skeptical about the study’s results.

Taylor Lincoln, research director at Public Citizen, a Washington advocacy group, says doctors “are the least reliable source of information because they have a vested interest” in pointing a finger at medical malpractice suits. He adds that the survey isn’t a thorough examination of the practice of defensive medicine. “It doesn’t say a thing about the amount of defensive medicine that physicians practice,” Lincoln says.

Tauren Dyson is an intern with the AARP Bulletin.

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