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Medical Malpractice: An Overview


MEDICAL MALPRACTICE is NEGLIGENCE committed by medical professionals. For negligence to be "actionable" (having all the components necessary to constitute a viable cause of action), there must be a duty owed to someone, a breach of that duty, and resulting harm or damage that is proximately caused by that breach. The simplest way to apply the concept of proximate cause to medical malpractice is to ask whether, "but for" the alleged negligence, the harm or injury would have occurred.

When determining whether the conduct of a member of the general public is negligent, the conduct is judged against a standard of how a "reasonably prudent person" might act in the same or similar circumstance. Conversely, when determining whether a medical professional has been negligent, his or her practice or conduct is judged at a level of competency and professionalism consistent with the specialized training, experience, and care of a "reasonably prudent" physician in the same or similar circumstances. This constitutes the "standard of care" or professional "duty" that a physician owes to his or her patient. If the physician breaches the standard of care and his patient suffers accordingly, there is actionable medical malpractice.

The term "patient" generally refers to a person who is receiving medical treatment and/or who is under medical care. In many states, other licensed medical professionals such as chiropractors, nurses, therapists, and psychologists, may also be sued for malpractice, i.e., negligently breaching their respective professional duties owed to the patient. The following sections refer generally to medical malpractice as it relates to medical doctors/physicians.

Actionable Malpractice

State laws govern the viability of causes of action for medical malpractice. The laws vary in terms of time limits to bring suit, qualifications of "expert" witnesses, cognizable theories of liability, and proper party defendants/proper party plaintiffs. Notwithstanding these differences, there are common requisites for all cases.

First and foremost, a physician must owe a duty to patients before his or her competency in performing that duty can be judged. In U. S. JURISPRUDENCE, a person has no affirmative duty to assist injured individuals, -in the absence of a special relationship with them (such as doctor-patient, attorney-client, guardian-ward, etc.) A doctor dining in a restaurant has no duty to come forward and assist injured others if they suffer a heart attacks while dining in the same restaurant. If the doctor merely continues with his meal and does nothing to help, the ailing others would not have an action for malpractice against him, notwithstanding their harm. However, once a doctor voluntarily decides to assist others or come to their aid, he or she becomes liable for any injury that results from any negligence during that assistance.

Once the requisite doctor-patient relationship is established, the doctor owes to the patient the duty to render care and treatment with that degree of skill, care, and diligence as possessed by or expected of a reasonably competent physician under the same or similar circumstances. The "circumstances" include the area of medicine in which the physician practices, the customary or accepted practices of other physicians in the area (the "locality rule"), the level of equipment and facilities available at the time and in that locality, and the exigent circumstances, if any, surrounding the treatment or medical service rendered. The requisite degree of skill and expertise under the circumstances is established by "expert testimony" from other practicing physicians who share the same or similar skill, training, certification, and experience as the allegedly negligent physician.

Failure to Diagnose or Erroneous Diagnosis

Generally, a delay or failure to diagnose a disease is actionable, if it has resulted in injury or disease progression above and beyond that which would have resulted from a timely diagnosis. This situation may be difficult to prove. For example, a patient may ALLEGE that a doctor failed to timely diagnose a certain cancer, resulting in "metastasis" (spread of the cancer to other organs or tissues). But experts may TESTIFY that "micrometastasis" (spreading of the disease at the cellular level) may occur as much as ten years before a first tumor has been diagnosed, and cancerous cells may have already traveled in the bloodstream and lodged elsewhere, eventually to grow into new tumors. Therefore, it may be difficult in some cases to establish that a patient has suffered a worse prognosis because of the failure or delay in diagnosis.

If a patient is treated for a disease or condition that he or she does not have, the treatment or medication itself may cause harm to the patient. This is in addition to the harm caused by the true condition continuing untreated.

Most doctors are trained to think and act by establishing a "differential diagnosis." Doing so calls for a doctor to list, in descending order of probability, his or her impressions or "differing" diagnoses of possible causes for a patient's presenting symptoms. The key question in assessing a misdiagnosis for malpractice is to ask what diagnoses a reasonably prudent doctor, under similar circumstances, would have considered as potential causes for the patient's symptoms. If a doctor failed to consider the patient's true diagnosis on his/her differential diagnosis list or listed it but failed to rule it out with additional tests or criteria, then the doctor is most likely negligent.

Failure to Treat or Erroneous Treatment

The most common way in which doctors are negligent by failing to treat a medical condition is when they "dismiss" the presenting symptoms as temporary, minor, or otherwise not worthy of treatment. This situation may result in an exacerbation of the underlying condition or injury, causing further harm or injury. For example only, an undiagnosed splinter or chip in a broken bone may result in the lodging of a piece of bone in soft tissue or internal bleeding caused by the sharp edge of the splintered bone.

Erroneous treatment is most likely to occur as a result of a misdiagnosis. However, a doctor who has correctly diagnosed a disease or condition may nonetheless fail to properly treat it. Other times, negligence is the result of a doctor attempting a "novel" treatment that fails, when in fact a more conventional treatment would have been successful.

Substandard Care, Treatment, or Surgery

The standard of care which is owed to people as a patients is that which represents that level of skill, expertise, and care possessed and practiced by physicians found in the same or similar community as the relevant one, and under similar circumstances. However, the advent of "national board" exams for new doctors and "board certifications" for doctor-specialists has resulted in a more uniform and standard practice of medicine not dependent upon geographic locality.

All licensed physicians should possess a basic level of skill and expertise in diagnosing and treating general or recurring types of illnesses and injuries. Thus, a general practitioner who has administered substandard cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to a heart attack victim (who subsequently dies as a result of the substandard care) cannot defend that he or she was not a "cardio-pulmonary specialist." A general practitioner from virtually any other area in the United States could most likely testify as to the level of care and expertise that is to be expected under the circumstances. Conversely, a board-certified cardiopulmonary specialist could not testify that the general practitioner should have done everything that the specialist might have done with his advanced skill and training. Nor, under the locality rule, could an oncology specialist in private practice in Smalltown, U. S. A., be held to the same standard of care as an oncology specialist in a large urban university teaching hospital that has state-of-the-art equipment and facilities.

Because doctors are often reluctant to testify against their colleagues (referred to by lawyers as the "conspiracy of silence"), it may be difficult to find an unbiased expert willing to testify against a negligent doctor or label the care as substandard. This is resistance applies even when they practice on opposite sides of the country: they may know one another from the national board certifications or fellowship programs established for specialists. Moreover, truly competent doctors usually communicate with one another for professional "brainstorming" on diagnosing or treating some conditions or may collaborate in research or academic publications.

Gross Negligence

Within the context of medical malpractice, the term "gross negligence" refers to conduct so reckless or mistaken as to render itself virtually obvious to a layman without medical training. Examples include a surgeon amputating the wrong limb or leaving a surgical instrument inside a body cavity of the patient. Some states will permit a person to establish a cause of action for medical malpractice grounded in GROSS NEGLIGENCE without the need for expert TESTIMONY. A minority of states still permit an action for "res ipsa loquitur" ("the thing speaks for itself"), meaning that such an accident or injury to the patient could not have occurred unless there was negligence by the doctor's having control over the patient.

Unauthorized Treatment or Lack of Informed Consent

Virtually all states have recognized, either by express STATUTE or COMMON LAW, the right to receive information about one's medical condition, the treatment choices, risks associated with the treatments, and prognosis. The information must be in plain language terms that can readily be understood and in sufficient amounts such that a patient is able to make an "informed" decision about his or her health care. If the patient has received this information, any consent to treatment that is given will be presumed to be an "informed consent." A doctor who fails to obtain INFORMED CONSENT for non-emergency treatment may be charged with a civil and/or criminal offense such as a "battery" or an unauthorized touching of the plaintiff's person.

In order to prevail on a charge that a doctor performed a treatment or procedure without "informed consent," the patient must usually show that, had the patient known of the risk or outcome allegedly not disclosed, the patient would not have opted for the treatment or procedure and thus avoided the risk. In other words, the patient must show a harmful consequence to the unauthorized treatment.

Guaranteed Results or Guaranteed Prognosis

Virtually all states prohibit or disallow claims that a doctor promised a certain prognosis of success or guaranteed a certain result if a patient agreed to undergo the suggested treatment, procedure, or therapy. Some states permit such claims for cosmetic surgery only if the guaranteed result is in writing and contained in the form of an enforceable contract.

Breaches of Doctor-Patient Confidentiality

Doctor-patient confidentiality is based upon the general principle that a person seeking medical help or advice should not be hindered or inhibited by fear that his or her medical concerns or conditions will be disclosed to others. There is generally an expectation that the physician will hold that special knowledge in confidence and use it exclusively for the benefit of the patient.

The professional duty of confidentiality covers not only what a patient may reveal to the doctor, but also what a doctor may independently conclude or form an opinion about, based on his or her examination or ASSESSMENT of the patient. Confidentiality covers all medical records (including x-rays, lab-reports, etc.) as well as communications between patient and doctor and generally includes communications between the patient and other professional staff working with the doctor.

The duty of confidentiality continues even after a patient has stopped seeing or being treated by the doctor. Once a doctor is under a duty of confidentiality, he or she cannot divulge any medical information about patients to third persons without patients' consent. There are limited exceptions to this, including disclosures to state health officials. However, unauthorized disclosure to unauthorized parties may create a cause of action against the doctor.

Vicarious Liability

Finally, a doctor who has been negligent may not be the only DEFENDANT in a subsequent lawsuit. A hospital that has retained the doctor on its staff may be vicariously liable for the doctor's negligence under a theory of "respondeat superior" ("let the master answer") that often holds an employer liable for the negligence of its employees. More often, the doctor has "staff privileges" at the hospital, and the hospital will attempt to prove the limited role it plays in directing or supervising the doctor's work. Importantly, many doctors belong to private medical practices, such as limited partnerships or limited liability companies, that also may be vicariously liable for the negligence of their member doctors.

However, a doctor is generally liable for any negligence on the part of his assistants and staff in carrying out his orders or caring for his patients. Likewise, an attending physician is generally liable for any negligence on the part of interns and medical students under the physician's guidance.

Patient's Contributory or Comparative Negligence

As malpractice is a form of negligence, defenses that are generally allowed against general claims of negligence are also viable against claims of malpractice. These might include the following defenses:

  • The patient was also negligent and caused much of his or her own harm
  • The patient failed to mitigate his or her own harm or damage or made them worse
  • The patient gave an informed consent and therefore assumed the risk of any [complication or untoward effect]
  • The alleged harm or damage was an unavoidable "known risk" that occurs without negligence
  • The patient failed to disclose important information to the doctor
  • The patient's prognosis or condition was not worsened by the alleged negligence
  • The patient engaged in some intervening or superceding conduct following the alleged malpractice that broke the chain of events linking the malpractice to the patient's damages or harm