NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Survey Shows Doctors Admit to Overtreating Patients

October 4, 2011

Some believe that a substantial amount of U.S. health care is unnecessary, suggesting that it would be possible to control costs without rationing effective services.  Recent studies have taken this question to the front line of medical care, surveying primary care providers to solicit their opinions on overtreatment and over diagnosis, says National Journal.

A survey conducted of 627 members of the American Medical Association yielded significant feedback:

  • More than 40 percent of the respondents said patients in their own practice received too much medical care, while only 6 percent said their patients got too little care.
  • While 76 percent of doctors stated that malpractice concerns caused them to treat more aggressively, just 21 percent feared that they might be sued for ordering an unnecessary test.
  • Sixty-two percent said diagnostic testing would be reduced if it did not generate revenue for medical subspecialists.

Two culprits can be seen from the data that explain the increasing tendency to overtreat.  First, fears of litigation greatly incentivize care providers to treat aggressively.

  • Malpractice suits are costly, both financially and in time lost.
  • It is true that lawsuits can be filed not only for ordering too little treatment, but also too much.
  • However, as stated above care providers are more fearful of the prior, causing them to be more aggressive in their testing and treatment procedures.

The other causal factor is the problematic fee-for-service system.

  • Under this financial structure, doctors are compensated for each test and procedure individually, thereby increasing financial incentives for unnecessary or minimally effective practices.
  • The Obama administration has recently jumpstarted initiatives to bundle services and tests into a single package as opposed to piecemeal tests.
  • Yet it remains to be seen if such a change could help to reverse the overtreatment trend.

Source: Maggie Fox, "Survey Shows Doctors Admit to Overtreating Patients," National Journal, September 26, 2011.

For text:


Browse more articles on Health Issues