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Emergency room doctors: medically unnecessary tests common

It is easy to sympathize with doctors who work in emergency rooms. They frequently find themselves having to make diagnosis and treatment decisions on patients who may have serious or life-threatening injuries, illnesses or other conditions with little time to analyze symptoms or to make a thorough analysis of what those symptoms really mean; and the consequences for making an incorrect diagnosis, or delaying treatment too long, or providing the wrong kind of treatment can be disastrous for everyone involved.

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that many -- perhaps most -- emergency room physicians will seek to protect themselves against the prospect of a medical malpractice lawsuit by attempting to cover themselves against as many unexpected or low-probability causes of the patient’s suffering as they can. This is a practice colloquially known as “defensive medicine,” and according to a study issued earlier this year by the Society of Academic Emergency Medicine it is engaged in by a majority of emergency room doctors.

Defensive medicine frequently takes the form of diagnostic tests such as advanced imaging studies that physicians will admit are not medically necessary. Whether defensive medicine is effective as a means of avoiding medical malpractice lawsuits is uncertain, although it unavoidably adds to medical costs. And another inevitability is that no matter how careful emergency room doctors try to be to protect themselves as well as their patients, they are human beings -- meaning, they will make human mistakes that can harm their patients whether that mistake takes the form of a missed cause, or a misread symptom, or an incorrect treatment decision. Even hospital negligence can be a factor in some of these instances of patient injury due to medical malpractice if it can be shown that the hospital did not sufficiently staff its emergency department or failed to properly hire, train and supervise the health care workers who are assigned there.

Anyone in Connecticut who suffers a new injury, or who incurs a new illness or worsened medical condition as a result of a medical mistake should consult with an attorney who is experienced with this state’s medical malpractice and hospital negligence law to see whether a cause of action for compensation exists as a result, and for help with pursuing that claim if it does.

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