Survey: Medical malpractice threats hamstring doctors

Chris Rizo Nov. 10, 2009, 1:15am

ALPHARETTA, Ga. - The overwhelming majority of U.S. physicians say the threat of medical malpractice litigation is influencing their practice of medicine, a survey found.

About 85 percent of doctors said litigation threats is their primary hindrance to treating their patients as they see fit, according to a survey published Friday by Atlanta-based Jackson Healthcare.

Proponents of legal reform say doctors would not have to run unnecessary tests and procedures -- so-called defensive medicine -- if they were not under such constant threat of lawsuits.

"We found that regardless of a physician's political affiliation, the respondents attributed the practice of defensive medicine to excessive waste in the health care system," said Jackson Healthcare CEO Rick Jackson.

The Internet-based survey sampled 1,978 physicians across the nation in major medical and surgical specialties. The survey has an error range of plus or minus 1.42 percentage points.

The Jackson Healthcare survey was released a day before the U.S. House of Representatives on Saturday narrowly passed a landmark health care overhaul bill that lacks any tort reforms.

"Any physician in America will tell you that the simplest way to reduce health care costs is to enact real medical liability reform," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va. "The fear of being sued by opportunistic trial lawyers is pervasive in the practice of medicine. Our system wastes billions on defensive medicine that should be going to patient care."

The $1 trillion House bill had the support of one Republican -- first term Anh "Joseph" Cao of Louisiana -- and opposition from 39 Democrats.

The bill would bar insurers from denying coverage and prohibit the insurance industry from charging higher premiums to consumers with a preexisting condition.

The bill also contains a public insurance option, which proponents say is aimed at injecting more competition into the health insurance marketplace. Under the legislation, the insurance industry would lose its exemption from federal antitrust restrictions on market allocation and price fixing.

Among other legal reforms, House Republicans had suggested a cap on punitive damages and narrowing the statute of limitations on malpractice claims that would reduce health care costs.

The director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, has said as much as $54 billion could be saved over the next 10 years if Congress enacts legal reforms including a $250,000 cap on damages for pain and suffering and a $500,000 cap on punitive damages and restricting the statute of limitations on malpractice claims.

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