How Defensive Medicine Increases the Cost of Healthcare

How Defensive Medicine Increases the Cost of Healthcare

Studies have shown that up to 92% of physicians will sometimes use a treatment strategy called “defensive medicine.” The idea is that, in order to protect themselves from a possible malpractice lawsuit, a physician will order extra tests, procedures, or medications for patients. That way, the provider will be able to show that they practiced exceptional due diligence, even when the outcome is less than favorable for the patient.

While this idea may sound good in theory, the reality of defensive medicine is less successful–especially when it comes to the patient experience. Patients on the receiving end of this technique are not necessarily enjoying the process. And it’s also not entirely clear that this strategy yields significant liability benefits for physicians–so the patient experience suffers for the sake of a legal strategy that may or may not work.

Changes to the malpractice system could indeed help curtail defensive medicine and improve the patient experience. But that’s not necessarily something any single practice can control. Instead, it makes sense for practices to acknowledge the reality of the situation–that defensive medicine is a popular strategy–and work to improve the patient experience regardless. In other words, your practice can use all the tools at its disposal–including marketing–to ensure more of their patients are satisfied patients.

Why Do Providers Practice “Defensive Medicine?”

In general, physicians have good reason to practice “defensive medicine” at least some of the time. According to one study, roughly 1 in 14 US doctors have faced a malpractice lawsuit in the last year. While many of these lawsuits go nowhere and are resolved without any decisions that negatively impact the provider’s practice, they still require time and resources to litigate. 

As a result, it’s not shocking that some doctors will be overly preferential or cautious with their patients (or some of their patients). If the patient wants an X-ray, the doctor will schedule an X-ray. If the patient wants antibiotics, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics. And so on. Likewise, if there’s a remote possibility of a negative outcome, the physician may schedule a battery of tests just to rule out that negative outcome. Better that than to risk a malpractice lawsuit.

There are good reasons to use this type of strategy. Unfortunately, those reasons are not necessarily medical reasons. (It should be noted that “defensive medicine” is not the same thing as medically-warranted caution.)

How Does Defensive Medicine Impact the Patient Experience?

These days, patients are particularly selective about where they receive their care. As a result, the healthcare field is slightly more retail-oriented than it used to be. It’s important to attract patients–particularly when those patients can generate positive word of mouth. In a very simplified sense (along with some key marketing decisions), this is how many practices grow.

But there are some significant ways in which defensive medicine can undercut this process, harming patient experience and making your patients less satisfied. When a patient’s experience is guided by defensive medicine, they tend to:

  • Undergo more tests: In many cases this may not be a bad thing–but when the tests are unpleasant, expensive, and inconclusive (or lead to more complications or false positives than they’re worth), this can lead a patient to sour on the whole experience. After all, patients value their time!
  • Feel passed around from specialist to specialist: This can make the healthcare experience feel much less personal. 
  • Fight with their insurance companies: Patients who undergo tests or try to receive medication will often wind up fighting with their insurance companies. The more tests and meds, the more fighting they’ll have to do. And insurance companies have a strong interest in keeping their costs low.
  • Not know what to do next: When patients have test after test after test, they may not have a good concept of when their healthcare experience can be expected to end. That can leave them feeling in limbo–or at the very least, a little unsatisfied.
  • Have less confidence in the healthcare system: Almost 65% of people are already looking up their symptoms online. If your patients start to view WebMD as more reliable than their provider, your practice will have a very hard time growing (and your patients will receive poorer care as a result).

How Can You Improve the Patient Experience?

There are plenty of reasons to move away from defensive medicine–but it’s unlikely to disappear altogether. Whether it’s part of your practice plan or not, there are still some ways you can improve the overall experience for your patients. 

The more satisfying you can make the overall patient experience, the more likely those patients will go on to become brand ambassadors for your clinic. So, how do you do that? Here are some of the most common ways you can elevate the patient experience you offer:

  • Make scheduling easy: Something like 66% of patients say that they’ve had to wait too long to schedule an appointment. That kind of interaction can immediately make a bad impression on patients. The solution is to adopt a modern, HIPAA-compliant scheduling system–so patients can schedule an appointment quickly and easily. 
  • Have a functional and informative website: Most patients (something like 77%, according to some studies) are going to look up providers on search engines before ever making an appointment. In other words, the experience your patients have with your brand starts well before they ever walk through your doors. Making sure your website is functional and full of useful information can both help patients find you, trust you, and have a great experience.
  • Make sure patients feel heard: In many cases, patients simply want to be heard. Practicing this skill–and instilling it in staff and culture–can be absolutely critical to ensuring a high quality patient experience. 
  • Have a sound reputation management strategy: Almost three-quarters of all patients look at online reviews before they decide to make an appointment. Ensuring your clinic, practice, or healthcare organization has reviews that reflect an accurate patient experience is critical to your success. An accurate set of reviews can also help set patient expectations going in, which is essential to a successful patient experience.
  • Take care to set expectations: Make sure that you help patients set realistic expectations. This is especially true when it comes to your marketing. If patients expect miracle cures (especially if they read about them on your website), there will be no way to deliver a satisfactory patient experience. Ensure that your marketing does not overhype–and instead focuses on accurate and realistic expectations.
  • Combat misinformation: Ensuring that your online and in-person resources follow sound medical information and combat misinformation can help keep patients informed and build trust in your brand. 

No matter what individual steps you might take, a comprehensive patient experience strategy can help ensure that patients are more satisfied across all aspects of their interaction–from visiting your website to questions about billing.

Is Defensive Medicine a Good Thing?

Defensive medicine is influenced by situational pressures, patient demands, and is further complicated by the inefficient and outdated medical malpractice system. New measures need to be implemented to help eliminate these issues and minimize the use of defensive medicine. (This could help cut healthcare spending drastically.)

Healthcare organizations and medical companies today must at least acknowledge the impact that defensive medicine can have on patients and the patient experience. When you acknowledge that impact–from your marketing strategy to your appointment setting–you can take steps to insulate patients and to ensure that the patient experience is fantastic from start to finish.


Updated: November 2023