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What Is Defensive Medicine?

Doctor MaskRightly or wrongly, it is assumed that U.S. citizens are generally litigious, especially in the realm of professional malpractice. However, medical professionals have adopted methods over time that allegedly insulate them from liability by creating fewer opportunities to exploit medical mistakes. The medical profession refers to this as defensive medicine, but paradoxically, it may actually create more opportunities for error.

Definition and Application

Put simply, defensive medicine is characterized as anything departing from the normal standard of care for the express purpose of avoiding future legal liability. This practice may include anything from ordering unnecessary tests, to avoiding hospitalization of a patient who might require a risky surgery. A 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that as many as 93 percent of private sector physicians practiced some form of defensive medicine.

The ostensible reason for such practices is to avoid a costly and damaging malpractice lawsuit. However, it has also been shown to decrease the standard of care for patients, for a variety of reasons. Ordering tests that are not strictly necessary, for example, may create not only financial hardship for a patient, but also physical and emotional stress. In some situations, physicians may be compensated or otherwise rewarded for keeping costs down, when the focus should be on the patient rather than the administrative operations of the hospital.

Relation to Malpractice

Medical malpractice is generally defined in California as a breach of the standard of care normally owed to a patient by a medical professional. If a plaintiff can prove that the physician’s conduct was the direct cause of the injuries they suffered, which led to a breach of the duty of care, the physician will likely be found negligent.

Physicians fear being sued, as one might expect. While defensive medicine in itself is not grounds for malpractice, sometimes a breach in the standard of care can come about because of the physician’s decision to engage in defensive practices. For example, a physician engaged in defensive medicine practices may not perform a surgical procedure on a patient they deem high-risk. However, if the patient later suffers severe complications from an undetected tumor or lesion, it is very plausible that the physician could be found to have breached the standard of care.

Seek Experienced Counsel

A difficult balance must be struck between ensuring quality patient care and safeguarding doctors’ interests from frivolous lawsuits. However, this does not mean that the standard of care owed to patients may be breached with impunity. If you believe you have been the victim of medical malpractice due to a doctor’s ‘defensive’ measures, it is best to consult a competent attorney. The San Jose medical malpractice lawyers at Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard, L.L.P. have many years’ worth of experience in malpractice cases, and understand how difficult and frightening they can be. Contact our office today at (408) 289-1417 to set up a first appointment. We serve San Jose, the Bay Area, and the counties of San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Monterey and Alameda.

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My experience with Attorney Brad Corsiglia during my recent medical malpractice case was nothing short of amazing given the very stressful circumstances. I was fortunate to find Brad highly recommended from a mutual contact and from the very beginning of the process, Brad was truly engaged and knowledgeable in understanding my case and providing input on what avenues were available to me. Michelle M.