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Is Overtreatment Medical Malpractice?

Many people don’t think adding an extra treatment or two would be necessarily harmful. Sometimes, providing extra treatment is helpful or at least not damaging. However, given the extent of overprescribing, overdiagnosing, and providing unnecessary medical treatment, overtreatment can cause serious injury. 

Medical care should not be about guessing what a patient needs or just doing extra to protect the doctor. Doctors have years of medical education, on-the-job training, and experience. They are supposed to follow the standards of medical care in diagnosing and treating a patient. If the doctor gives the patient unnecessary treatments, it can cause pain, physical damage, or even put the patient into a worse position. 

Medical students take the Hippocratic Oath, including the promise to “first, do no harm.” Overtreatment can be harmful, causing unnecessary expense, pain, and suffering to patients. If you were treated unnecessarily or believe the additional treatment caused further harm, contact an experienced medical malpractice law firm about your case. 

Medical Overtreatment in the United States

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), overtreatment is “unnecessary treatment for a condition that is not life-threatening or would never cause any symptoms. Overtreatment may lead to problems and harmful side effects. Overtreatment can be a result of overdiagnosis.”

Some overtreatment is caused by doctors trying to protect themselves against possible liability if a patient claims the doctor did not do enough. However, overtreatment can also be caused by more common medical errors, like misdiagnosis, improper diagnosis, or failure to properly diagnose the patient. 

In some cases, dishonest doctors may even be overtreating patients in order to pad their pockets. Providing unnecessary treatments and medications, or overtreating patients means that doctors can bill more to the patient’s insurance company. This not only goes against the standard of medical care, but is also unethical and illegal. A doctor who is committing medical care fraud or insurance fraud can face criminal charges and jail time. 

Diagnostic Errors and Overtreatment 

Diagnostic errors are a common cause of medical malpractice injuries. This includes a misdiagnosis that leaves the proper cause of injury untreated, as well as treating a patient for the wrong problem that does nothing to improve the patient’s health or even makes it worse. In some cases, simply misreading a diagnostic test can lead to a flood of unnecessary treatments that overtreat a problem that isn’t there. 

According to Dr. Dan Morgan, an infectious disease and general medicine physician, and professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, doctors often misread lab results. “The issue is mostly that doctors, as well as patients, tend to believe that patients do or don’t have a disease when a test is positive or negative. Tests are just a lot more complicated than that.”

Many diseases or conditions only have one type of test, that can come back as positive, negative, or inconclusive. However, some of these tests have a higher false-positive rate or false-negative rate. Using a less reliable test can lead to less useful results or even put the doctor (and patient) on the wrong treatment path

Increased Costs of Medical Care From Overtreatment

One of the reasons the medical industry is so interested in the problem of overtreatment is that these unnecessary procedures cost them money. Medical insurance companies don’t want to provide any additional procedures, medications, treatments, or use up doctors’ hours when it costs them additional money. 

Proper care should not be about who can or can’t afford it. Unfortunately for many patients in the U.S., the costs of medical care can be prohibitive. Higher costs of drugs and treatment may be enough to make a patient skip their medication, avoid necessary treatments, improve quality of life, or even prolong their lives. Overtreatment drives up the costs of care for everyone. 

In the article, “Spending Medicare’s Dollars Wisely: Taking Aim at Hospitals’ Cultures of Overtreatment,” the author argues, “if Medicare is to successfully contain costs, it must prod hospitals to move from cultures of overtreatment to cultures of efficiency.”  

Focusing on the added costs of overtreatment addresses Medicare’s spending concerns and the concerns of the medical insurance companies. However, this fails to take into account the harm that unnecessary care can put on the patients themselves and their families. 

Overtreatment and Overdiagnosis in Cancer Care

Overtreatment can cause problems and harmful side effects in cancer care. According to the NCI, “overtreatment can be a result of overdiagnosis, which occurs when a cancer screening test finds a lesion that would have gone away on its own or not caused problems.”

Some cancers will never cause any symptoms. These cancers may stop growing or go away on their own. Overdiagnosis of a non-harmful cancer can cause anxiety and stress in patients. It may also cause them to seek out alternative care that has additional risks and side effects. If the doctor overtreats a non-harmful cancer, it could put the patient at risk of unnecessary surgery, unnecessary chemo treatment, cause scarring, disfigurement, and damage other healthy organs. 

According to the author of “How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America,” unnecessary therapy in America is an epidemic. Dr. Otis Brawley is the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. According to Dr. Brawley, “a large number of American men with prostate cancer get unnecessary and aggressive treatment. In some cases, these treatments are known to be worthless and even harmful.”

Many common cancer treatment therapies are applied to a broad group of patients even if the therapy is most beneficial for a limited group of identifiable patients. 

For example, in a study of men diagnosed with prostate cancer, a common hormone therapy did nothing to prolong survival. Instead, for the majority of patients, it caused “hot flashes, muscle weakness, osteoporosis, and impotence in all who get it. These drugs raise the man’s risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and death from cardiovascular disease.”

In the same article, Dr. Brawley notes another study where patients with low-grade, less aggressive cancers get aggressive surgery or radiation therapy that is unnecessary. These unnecessary treatments were associated with serious injuries and side effects, including incontinence, sexual dysfunction, and worse. 

Doctors Know About the Overtreatment Problem

Most doctors are aware of the problems of overtreatment, including the cause of preventable harm and unnecessary waste in health care. According to a survey of doctors on the prevalence, causes, and implications of overtreatment, doctors reported an average of 20% of overall care was unnecessary. Unnecessary care included: 

  • 25% of tests
  • 22% of medications
  • 11% of procedures

According to the doctors, the most common reasons for overtreatment was the fear of medical malpractice, patient pressure, and difficulty accessing the patient’s medical records. However, the majority of doctors responded that doctors are more likely to perform unnecessary procedures when they get a profit for the additional treatment. 

Some examples of types of overtreatment that are associated with patient harm include: 

  • Overuse of antibiotic drugs leading to infection and drug-resistant strains; 
  • Overuse of pap smear, colonoscopy, and other diagnostic testing; and 
  • Postoperative complications of unnecessary surgical procedures.

Overusing antibiotics promotes antibiotic resistance. This includes patients taking antibiotics for the wrong purposes or doctors misprescribing or overtreating patients with antibiotics unnecessarily. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1/3rd of antibiotic use is not necessary or not appropriate. Overusing antibiotics can be dangerous for everyone. 

The Risks of Overtreatment in Unnecessary Surgery

When a doctor gets the informed consent of a patient before undergoing surgery, the doctor is supposed to inform the patient of the potential risks of the procedures, benefits, and alternatives. Complications from surgery, including postoperative complications, can cause serious injury, pain, and disfigurement. Potential risks of surgical procedures include:

  • Infection
  • Nerve damage
  • Blood clots
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Anaphylactic shock
  • Drug reactions

The risks of surgery may be the same for necessary care or unnecessary care. At least when the surgery is appropriate, there is a benefit of undertaking the risks. If the surgery is not needed or not appropriate for the patient, any risks of surgery are unnecessary and preventable. 

In one study, a neurosurgeon tracked the patients referred for spinal surgery over a one-year period. During this time, the surgeon noted a number of these patients were inappropriate for surgical treatment. The surgeon saw 274 patients for cervical and lumbar spinal consultations, after they were told they needed spinal surgery by another doctor. However, many of these patients had no neurological deficits and were without abnormal imaging studies, including their X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans. 

Of the 274 patients referred to the surgeon, 45 patients had normal neurological and radiographic findings. If the patients had been overtreated for their conditions, they could have undergone serious spinal surgery, including spinal fusions, cervical operations, and lumbar operations. Many of these patients also had other comorbidities that put them at additional risks of complications from invasive surgery. 

Surgery always carries risks. Even in a healthy and young patient undergoing a minor procedure, there is always a risk that something could go wrong. Even before surgery begins, if there is a problem with the anesthesia, anesthesia errors can cause brain injury, brain damage, cardiac arrest, or death. During treatment, intubation injuries, medication errors, and surgical errors are also a risk. 

Even so-called “never event” errors can happen during a routine surgery. A never-event error should never happen in a healthcare facility without some form of negligence. Surgical never events include: 

Wrong Patient and Wrong Procedure Surgery

For example, in a busy cosmetic surgery office, there are procedures scheduled for one patient who wants liposuction around the torso and a patient who wants a breast reduction. The busy plastic surgeon is operating on both patients in separate rooms because the other surgeon was sick. The doctor performs the liposuction and the breast reduction. However, when the patients come out of anesthesia, they say the doctor performed the wrong procedure

Both patients are devastated. The patient who wanted lipo had surgery on their breasts and tissue permanently removed. The patient who wanted a breast reduction has swelling and pain all around the torso. Even if they allowed the doctor to try and fix the operations, the patients would have the effects of both surgeries even if they were never wanted, including pain, disfigurement, scarring, and emotional trauma.

Your Rights After an Overtreatment Injury

If you were treated by your doctor and your condition got worse, you may be questioning whether your doctor did something wrong in giving you an unnecessary treatment or the wrong one. How do you know the treatment was not appropriate? In a medical malpractice case, you have to show that the doctor deviated from the standards of care, caused an injury, and caused damage. 

Breach of the standard of care is based on what other similar doctors in the medical community would do. If a medical expert finds that the care provided was not appropriate or not what other reasonable doctors would have done, the expert can testify in front of a jury. If the patient injury victim shows all elements of medical malpractice, they can recover damages.

Damages are the legal term for the losses associated with the injury. In a medical malpractice case, reasonable damages may include any medical bills, additional medical costs associated with the injury, loss of income from your job, and pain and suffering. Talk to your medical malpractice lawyer about what you can recover in a medical injury claim.

Talk to a Medical Malpractice Lawyer About Your Case

If you underwent surgery that was not appropriate for your condition, you may be able to claim compensation for your losses. Contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney for advice about what you can do to recover money, medical bills, and loss of income after an overtreatment injury. The doctors and hospitals may owe your money for failing to provide proper medical care. 

Call experienced medical malpractice attorneys who can look at your case, answer your questions, and help you understand your legal options to file a claim against a surgeon. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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