Defensive Medicine: When Treatment Becomes Harmful

In some professions, like law or sports, being defensive can be a good thing. But in the medical field? It’s not as great.

What is Defensive Medicine?

Defensive medicine occurs when doctors or other healthcare professionals recommend tests, treatments, or procedures that are not necessarily the best option for a patient. They do this to protect themselves against medical malpractice claims. They hope that over-treating the patient will prevent them from being sued for negligence or mistakes. Medical malpractice is the third leading cause of death of adults in the United States, and it’s understandable that doctors are hyper-aware of the consequences of their actions. However, defensive medicine is not the best solution, as it can sometimes cause further harm to the patient.

For example, imagine that a woman comes into the emergency room with abdominal pain. Her doctor suspects that she just has indigestion. However, he is worried about being sued if he fails to diagnose a more serious issue, like appendicitis. After a few expensive tests, the doctor decides to remove the woman’s appendix, just to be sure. But during the appendectomy, the woman experiences severe bleeding and dies.

The Complications of Defensive Medicine

Obviously, this is a very extreme example, but it highlights the dangers of defensive medicine. When a doctor puts a patient through unnecessary procedures or tests, the patient can experience harm that would not have occurred otherwise, including:

  • Surgical errors and complications
  • Scarring
  • Allergic reactions to new medication
  • Exposure to radiation

In other cases, a doctor might neglect to treat what is actually wrong with the patient, or misdiagnose a real ailment. If nothing else, defensive medicine can be very expensive for the patient.

Is It Medical Malpractice?

Doctors turn toward defensive medicine in order to avoid litigation. This makes sense — no one wants to get sued! But doctors have taken an oath which says they will never do harm to their patients. Because of this, they are held to a high level of doctor-patient trust. They should not breach that trust simply because they are worried about getting sued. Their only concern should be the health of their patients, and they should work to treat those patients to the best of their abilities. In many cases, defensive medicine does not benefit the patient; instead, it just helps the doctor, which is a massive breach of the standard of care.

In fact, by attempting to avoid mistakes or misdiagnoses through defensive medicine, doctors may be opening themselves up to a medical malpractice case. If a doctor’s aggressive treatment can harm to a patient, the patient may be able to sue them for causing their injuries. In trying to avoid a medical malpractice suit, defensive doctors might actually be making things worse, both for their patients and themselves.


The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, and other types of personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.


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