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What is the practice of "defensive medicine"?

Recently we looked at some of the legal defenses that you may encounter if you become the plaintiff in a lawsuit that alleges medical malpractice. Many health care professionals take the idea of defending themselves against accusations of malpractice a step further, and can start to treat you like a plaintiff even before anything goes wrong. It's called, "defensive medicine," and a large number of physicians and surgeons appear to be practicing it.

The concept of defensive medicine is simple: start with the assumption that the patient is going to sue the doctor, then work backwards to think of ways to head off the lawsuit. Defensive medicine manifests itself most often in the form of the myriad of diagnostic tests and that you can be put through, many of which the physician may believe are unnecessary but are imposed nonetheless on the off chance that they might reveal something that can later be justified as having prevented a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis.

As many as four of every five neurosurgeons, and perhaps 90 percent of physicians generally may be practicing defensive medicine with their patients, but despite the apparent widespread occurrence of the practice of defensive medicine, its effectiveness in avoiding medical mistakes, as well as its effect on health care costs are not known with certainty.

Most patients do not go to a doctor or to a hospital anticipating a lawsuit; it stands to reason that most patients would prefer not to resort to such action, because it means that instead of their health becoming better as a result of treatment something will have gone wrong instead.

There is little, if anything that you as an individual patient can do about doctor attitudes when it comes to fear of committing medical malpractice. Misdiagnoses, delayed treatments, surgical errors, worsened medical conditions and prescription mistakes will continue to occur as long as human beings are involved in health care. What you can do, and should do is to consult with a medical malpractice attorney if you believe that such a mistake has been made which has caused you or a loved one harm.

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