Fear of Lawsuits Affects Emergency Physicians' Heart Care Decisions

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2005-07-13 20:35

Heart Care

Emergency physicians who have the greatest fear of malpractice suits are more likely than their colleagues to admit and order tests for patients with chest pain or other heart symptoms, even if those patients are at low risk for actual problems, according to a study led by a University of Iowa researcher.

These findings were based on surveys of 33 emergency doctors who participated in a prospective study of 1,134 patients at two teaching hospitals. The results appear in the July 13 online issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Nearly seven million Americans seek emergency care for heart-related symptoms each year, and nearly half of these individuals are hospitalized or admitted for further evaluation. However, most of these patients are subsequently shown not to have acute coronary syndromes such as unstable angina or heart attack.

Given the vast number of patients involved, these findings have implications for understanding how the practice of "defensive medicine" may increase the cost of health care, said the study's lead investigator, David Katz, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine.

"The fear of malpractice accounts for a significant portion of the variability in what doctors do in the emergency room," said Katz, who also is a staff physician and researcher with the Department of Veterans Affairs Iowa City Health Care System.

Katz said the UI-led study was unique in focusing on a single clinical scenario and in examining documented physicians' decisions, instead of just asking physicians to report how concern over lawsuits affects what they do.

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