With the recent passing of the Healthcare Reform Bill, a lot of people were arguing that they didn’t want the government to get between them and their doctor. Yet it seems that many of those same people want the government to step in and put some kind of cap on medical malpractice awards. They feel that these awards and the amount of money doctors have to spend on insurance against claims are one of the biggest reasons the cost of medical treatment today is so high.

A new study in September’s issue of “Health Affairs” analyzes the entire system of medical liability, including lawyers’ fees, other administrative costs, malpractice awards to plaintiffs and the cost of “defensive medicine.”

While discussions of numbers usually make eyes glaze over, here are just some of the pertinent — and mind-boggling — numbers: Medical liability costs were about $55.6 billion in 2008 — that’s 2.4 percent of U.S. spending on healthcare; $4 billion of that was lawyers’ fees and administrative expenses; $5.7 billion was actual malpractice payments to plaintiffs; and a whopping $45.6 billion was spent on defensive medicine expenses.

So this leads us to wonder what, exactly, defensive medicine is and how we can reduce its costs? The answer to the first part of the question is easier than the second; defensive medicine is when a doctor orders tests and procedures which are not medically necessary in order to protect himself if someone tries to sue him by saying that he didn’t do everything he could for a particular patient.

So when the discussion of medical malpractice reform comes up, just looking at the numbers tells us that instead of focusing on the amounts of awards (which definitely should be looked at), something needs to be done to alleviate or reduce the waste connected with defensive medicine.

And the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water. Another study showed that almost $20 billion was spent on medical errors in the U.S. in 2008. So reform is needed, but the medical liability system is also needed to protect patients from negligent doctors.