Since the early 2000s, most states in the U.S. have enacted laws broadly referred to as “tort reform.” Such laws have especially impacted medical malpractice lawsuits by making it harder for plaintiffs to prove medical negligence and/or by putting caps on the amount of money juries can award plaintiffs for non-economic damages.
The fact that these laws were called “reforms” implies that the old system was somehow broken and that new laws would result in better health care at lower costs. According to a recent study, health care costs may be going down, but not for patients.
A big argument for malpractice “reform” was that it would lower health care costs because doctors would no longer have to practice “defensive medicine.” This is when physicians order expensive tests and procedures that are not strictly necessary, allegedly to prevent liability in the event of a medical malpractice lawsuit.
According to a study by the RAND Corporation, however, doctors are still ordering the same tests and making the same recommendations. The study looked at millions of Medicare patient records in three states that had enacted tort reform laws. The records were for visits to hospital emergency departments between 1997 and 2011.
The study’s authors “did not find evidence that these reforms decreased practice intensity, as measured by the rate of the use of advanced imaging, by the rate of hospital admission, or in two of three cases, by average charges.” In short, doctors were still ordering very expensive CT and MRI scans, patients were still likely to be admitted for a longer hospital stay after an emergency room visit and prices charged to patients did not significantly decrease.
So where does this leave us? Well, doctors probably pay lower malpractice insurance premiums than they used to because the risks of being successfully sued are lower thanks to malpractice “reforms.” Meanwhile, these laws have not significantly changed the ways that medicine is practiced, nor have they resulted in lower costs to patients.
As Americans, we need to be wary of any proposed laws that limit our access to the civil justice system. The “reforms” we were promised have apparently been lucrative for doctors and hospitals, but patients have once again been left out in the cold.
Source: Forbes, “Doctors Still Order Unneeded Tests Despite Malpractice Reform,” Bruce Jaspen, Oct. 15, 2014