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Imaging tests are often done for the doctor -- not the patient

February 15, 2011|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times
  • A significant number of imaging tests are done for "defensive" purposes, a study found.
A significant number of imaging tests are done for "defensive"… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

Imaging tests such as MRIs and X-rays frequently are performed so that doctors can protect themselves from lawsuits, according to a new study.

A review of 2,068 orthopedic patients throughout Pennsylvania showed that almost 35% of the imaging costs were ordered for "defensive" purposes, researchers from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia reported Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in San Diego.

Medical malpractice lawsuits often hinge on charges that the doctor should have ordered more tests, said the lead author of the study, Dr. John Flynn, associate chief of orthopedic surgery at Children's. "Such a claim may be the driving force of so much of the defensive test ordering," he said in a news release.

The study involved 72 doctors who voluntarily participated. Overall, 19% of the tests were ordered for defensive purposes. But often they were expensive tests, such as MRIs. Even doctors who had been in practice for a long time were likely to order tests for defensive purposes, Flynn said.

Defensive medicine is not unique to orthopedics. A 2005 study of 824 doctors in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., found that almost 93% said they practiced defensive medicine. It's time for the nation to quantify how much of annual healthcare expenses are "wasted" on defensive medicine, Flynn said.

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