Whether personal malpractice experience is part of a tort signal prompting physicians to practice defensively is unclear. To explore this issue further, we assessed how physicians’ malpractice experiences affect clinical decision making. We surveyed 1,540 physicians from four specialty groups (cardiologists, surgeons, obstetrician-gynecologists, and internists) using specialty-specific clinical scenarios. Physicians were in active private practice, were covered by a single malpractice insurer for five or more years, and worked in an eastern state. The net response rate was 54 percent (835 of 1,540) but measurable bias, based on practice characteristics, was negligible. Physicians evaluated clinical scenarios that were designed to maximize potential for finding positive defensive practices (extra tests and procedures). Then they rated how various factors influenced their decisions and answered questions on practice attitudes. The study compared management and testing recommendations among physicians with varying levels of malpractice exposure, which we defined in three separate ways. Participants were unaware of the study hypotheses. Physicians with greater malpractice experience showed no systematic differences in initial management choice or subsequent test recommendations. For example, similar percentages of internists in the top and bottom claims rate quartiles admitted a patient with syncope (78 percent versus 73 percent; p = .42), discharged a patient with nonspecific chest pain (80 percent versus 80 percent; p = .88), and delayed surgery in a patient with nonspecific changes on a electrocardiograph (58 percent versus 68 percent; p = .18). Attitudes about malpractice also did not differ with varying malpractice experience. Personal malpractice experience is not a predominant factor in the tort signal that prompts physicians to engage in defensive practices, to the extent that such practices exist.

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