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Clinical Practice Guidelines as “Safe Harbors” against Malpractice Claims

Health care costs too much in the United States. One key problem is gold-plating of services driven by physicians’ fears of lawsuit for failure to do everything possible for patients. A notable example of such overutilization is increasingly routine ordering of advanced imaging or other tests. Reliable, evidence-based clinical guidelines promise to address low-value utilization by authoritatively stating standards of good care in advance.

Some thought leaders among Democrats seek to use guidelines to side step the routinized political battles over malpractice reform. Republicans have been saying that defensiveness and other problems justify caps and other limits on medical liability. Belittling defensiveness as a problem, Democrats have defended and promoted liability as an incentive for good care.

Defensiveness is a problem, acknowledge proponents of guidelines to reform liability. But it can be fixed simply by legislating that adherence to reliable guidelines constitutes a “safe harbor” against lawsuits for failure to do more. Safe harbors would remove the motivation for defensiveness and also any need to accept Republicans’ caps and other limits. Given the political stalemate in Washington, the idea is worth thinking through.

Good guidelines are a good idea, especially to improve quality of care, which is their main policy driver. And, because guidelines hold promise for cutting wasteful defensiveness, they have superficial appeal as a liability reform. However, practical feasibility limits the reach of safe harbors, as explained in a recent policy brief from The Urban Institute for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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