BOSTON — Physician James Wang says he tries to tell his patients when extra medical procedures aren't necessary. If they insist, though, he will do it — not so much to protect their health as his own practice.
After being sued for allegedly failing to diagnose a case of appendicitis, Wang says he turned to what's known as "defensive medicine," ordering extra tests, scans, consultations and even hospitalization to protect against malpractice suits.
"You are thinking about what can I do to prevent this from happening again," he said, adding that he did nothing wrong but agreed to a minor settlement to avoid a trial.
The practice is under scrutiny as Congress attempts to get an accurate price tag for the sweeping national health care overhaul. A pivotal floor vote on the Democrats' bill could come as early as Saturday.
Doctors say the hidden costs of the tests along with malpractice insurance and lawsuit awards are major drivers behind the soaring cost of care. Trial attorneys say bad medicine, not lawsuits, is to blame.
The debate has split along party lines, with Democrats typically siding with lawyers groups and Republicans agreeing with doctors.
Doctors say the price of defensive medicine and malpractice insurance accounts for up to 10 percent of health care spending. Lawyers say malpractice settlement costs amount to less than 0.5 percent of the $2.5 trillion spent each year on health care.
The cost of annual malpractice premiums can vary wildly depending on specialty, geographic location and insurance carrier.
Although Wang, an OB-GYN, said he typically avoids extra procedures and takes time to explain to patients when they are not necessary, he will sign off on them if a patient demands.
"It's one thing to order up a test to protect my patients," Wang said. "It's something else if I order up a test to protect myself."
More than 80 percent of the nearly 900 doctors who responded to a 2008 survey by the Massachusetts Medical Society reported practicing defensive medicine. The group estimated the cost of the extra tests at $281 million and the cost of unnecessary hospital admissions at $1.1 billion.
A 2005 study of 824 doctors in Pennsylvania by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Columbia Law School found 93 percent reported practicing defensive medicine.