Lead author Michelle Mello of the Harvard School of Public Health colleagues at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston analyzed various components of the medical liability system -- including payments made to malpractice plaintiffs; defensive medicine costs; administrative costs, such as lawyer fees; and the costs of lost clinician work time.
"Physician and insurer groups like to collapse all conversations about cost growth in healthcare to malpractice reform, while their opponents trivialize the role of defensive medicine," study author Amitabh Chandra of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, says in a statement. "Our study demonstrates that both these simplifications are wrong -- the amount of defensive medicine is not trivial -- $45.6 billion per year -- but it's unlikely to be a source of significant savings."
The study, published in Health Affairs, finds tort reforms such as capping non-economic damages may reduce liability costs but are likely to have little impact on overall healthcare spending, the researchers say.
Other reform proposals, such as moving away from fee-for-service reimbursement, may have a greater effect, but expanded health insurance coverage under federal healthcare reform may reduce medical liability costs if fewer people need to file claims to recoup out-of-pocket medical expenses incurred because of malpractice, the study says.