A qualitative interview study of Australian physicians on defensive practice and low value care: "it's easier to talk about our fear of lawyers than to talk about our fear of looking bad in front of each other"

Nola M Ries*, Briony Johnston, Jesse Jansen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BACKGROUND: Defensive practice occurs when physicians provide services, such as tests, treatments and referrals, mainly to reduce their perceived legal or reputational risks, rather than to advance patient care. This behaviour is counter to physicians' ethical responsibilities, yet is widely reported in surveys of doctors in various countries. There is a lack of qualitative research on the drivers of defensive practice, which is needed to inform strategies to prevent this ethically problematic behaviour.

METHODS: A qualitative interview study investigated the views and experiences of physicians in Australia on defensive practice and its contribution to low value care. Interviewees were recruited based on interest in medico-legal issues or experience in a health service involved in 'Choosing Wisely' initiatives. Semi-structured interviews averaged 60 min in length. Data were coded using the Theoretical Domains Framework, which encapsulates theories of behaviour and behaviour change.

RESULTS: All participants (n = 17) perceived defensive practice as a problem and a contributor to low value care. Behavioural drivers of defensive practice spanned seven domains in the TDF: knowledge, focused on inadequate knowledge of the law and the risks of low value care; skills, emphasising patient communication and clinical decision-making skills; professional role and identity, particularly clinicians' perception of patient expectations and concern for their professional reputation; beliefs about consequences, especially perceptions of the beneficial and harmful consequences of defensive practice; environmental context and resources, including processes for handling patient complaints; social influences, focused on group norms that encourage or discourage defensive behaviour; and emotions, especially fear of missing a diagnosis. Overall, defensive practice is motivated by physicians' desire to avoid criticism or scrutiny from a range of sources, and censure from their professional peers can be a more potent driver than perceived legal consequences.

CONCLUSIONS: The findings call for strengthening knowledge and skills, for example, to improve clinicians' understanding of the law and their awareness of the risks of low value care and using effective communication strategies with patients. Importantly, supportive cultures of practice and organisational environments are needed to create conditions in which clinicians feel confident in avoiding defensive practice and other forms of low value care.

Original languageEnglish
Article number16
Number of pages14
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2022


  • Defensive practice
  • LAW
  • Low value care
  • Medical professionals
  • Qualitative study
  • Theoretical domains framework

Cite this