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Medical negligence, a leading cause of death in the US, is when healthcare professionals breach the standard of care. About half of the medical negligence cases worldwide are caused by medication errors, with 25% leading to severe consequences.
Whether by omission or commission, other scenarios can also involve medical negligence. To fully understand them, it’s best to start by defining the concept of standard of care and what it means for patients.
The “Standard of Care” Defined
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the standard of care refers to “treatment that is accepted by medical experts as a proper treatment for a certain type of disease and that is widely used by healthcare professionals.” The NCI may also use other terms, such as best practice, standard medical care, and standard therapy.
In any case, standards governing medical care are not guidelines or options but rather the duty of care the doctor owes to the patient.
On the other hand, the law has a more practical approach to explaining the concept of standard of care. It defines the term as “how similarly qualified practitioners would have managed the patient’s care under the same or similar circumstances.”
In setting the requirements for what constitutes the standard of care, courts follow the respectable minority rule, saying that practitioners only have to do as a respectable minority of practitioners would under the same or similar situation.
Importance of the Standard of Care in the Healthcare Setting
From a medical standpoint, the standard of care is essential because it serves as a benchmark for assessing the quality of patient services. While medical negligence may be easy to prove in a medical setting, it’s very difficult to do so in court.
When filing a complaint for medical negligence, the injured party must prove the following:
- The doctor owed a duty of care to the patient.
- The doctor did not meet the standard of care in performing their duties to the patient.
- The patient suffered injuries, such as physical, emotional, or economic harm.
- The patient suffered injuries because of the doctor’s negligence.
A lawsuit for medical negligence will not succeed unless the above facts are well-established.
Determination of the Standard of Care
Various stakeholders, such as the government, courts, and professional organizations, help to determine the standard of care in a medical setting. Several factors can also give rise to the need to apply the right standard of care to any medical scenario. In order of decreasing relevance, these factors include the following:
- Federal and state statutes
- Federal and state regulations
- Court opinions
- Other regulatory statements (such as guidelines from licensing boards)
- Authoritative clinical guidelines
- Policies and guidelines from professional organizations (for example, the APA or AACAP)
- Journal/research articles
- Accreditation standards
- Hospital or clinic policies and procedures
Scenarios a Healthcare Provider Breaches the Standard of Care
As mentioned earlier, medical negligence ranks among the top causes of death in the US. This offers a glimpse into the various scenarios where a healthcare provider might breach the standard of care, including the following:
1. Misdiagnosing or failing to diagnose a serious condition
Doctors are experts in detecting diseases, but just like the rest of us, they are fallible. They can mistakenly give a patient a clean bill of health or misdiagnose them. As a result, a patient’s condition can worsen over time, or they may even end up with a lot more health issues because they underwent the wrong treatment. In both scenarios, the impact can be severe or even fatal.
Doctors can misdiagnose a patient’s condition for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of experience, overconfidence, or simply a lack of time. Regardless of the reason, there is no justification for a doctor to breach the duty of care they owe to their patients.
2. Failure to warn about surgery and other treatment risks
Healthcare practitioners may also violate the standard of care by failing to inform patients of the risks of treatment or a medical procedure. When patients are told of the risks, they can provide informed consent, one of the many patient rights in the US.
Informed consent is required before practitioners can perform invasive procedures or medical treatment, such as chemotherapy or cardiac catheterization. It allows patients to make major healthcare decisions while fully aware of their potential risks.
3. Surgical errors
A surgical error is any mistake made during or after a medical operation. There are many types of surgical errors, such as operating on the wrong person or body part, leaving a body part inside the patient’s body after the surgery, and not providing necessary post-surgical care. Since anesthesia is a significant part of the surgery, any lapses related to it are also considered surgical errors.
When doctors commit surgical errors, the results can be disastrous. Breaches of the standard of care related to surgery are potential grounds for a malpractice suit.
4. Birth injuries
Birth injuries occur to the mother or the newborn during or after pregnancy, labor, or delivery. Some possible injuries to the mother include uncontrolled tearing of the peritoneal area and hemorrhage, unmanaged blood pressure, and injury to the uterus, bladder, or bowel.
Newborns can develop cerebral palsy, which occurs due to oxygen deprivation during the delivery process. Both the mother and the baby can suffer injuries or even die if the doctor fails to perform a timely C-section.
5. Medication errors
Per year, the Food and Drug Administration receives over 100,000 reports of medication errors occurring in hospitals, pharmacies, and homes. Various possibilities can lead healthcare practitioners to make such mistakes.
Sometimes, it all starts with a misdiagnosis leading to the wrong prescriptions. Along with third-party involvement, such as medical transcription services from a poorly chosen provider, defective machines may also play a part in medication errors.
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has named various causes of medication errors, such as communication issues, technical failures, and the human limitations of healthcare providers. Regardless of the reason, breaches in the standard of care are never acceptable.
6. Laboratory negligence
Medical lab professionals, such as medical technologists and X-ray technicians, can commit medical negligence in various ways. For example, they may mislabel samples, use faulty equipment, delay test results, or mix up patient specimens.
When lab personnel are negligent, a patient can suffer in several ways. The wrong test results can lead to a misdiagnosis, wrong treatment, or the absence of both a diagnosis and treatment. Perhaps because of an erroneous negative test result, a patient who doesn’t know that they have an infectious disease can cause an outbreak of that disease. This can lead to a malpractice claim.
Bedsores, also called decubitus ulcers or pressure ulcers, are skin injuries resulting from constant pressure on the skin. People with bedsores are usually bedridden patients who remain in the same position for long periods of time.
Part of caring for bedridden patients is routinely turning them. Therefore, bedsores are considered a sign of negligence in the medical community. The hospital may be liable if a patient develops bedsores and one of their employees was responsible for looking after them.
8. Hospital-acquired infections
Patients sometimes acquire infections due to staying at a hospital. These are called nosocomial infections, indicating that hospital employees breached their standard of care.
Implementing best practice infection control measures and ensuring hospital employees comply with them is part of the standard of care in preventing nosocomial infections. When hospitals fail to do either, they can be liable for nosocomial infections.
Seeking Legal Recourse Through a Malpractice Lawyer
When healthcare providers breach the standard of care, patients can suffer severe or even fatal consequences. Hence, victims should explore all possible avenues in seeking fair compensation for their physical, mental, and economic suffering.
Filing a medical malpractice claim, however, can be complex, especially when the doctor also retains a lawyer to defend them. This makes it even more important for a malpractice victim to have access to the best medical transcription services and excellent legal representation.
Malpractice lawyers can determine the strength of the case and tell you whether it needs more work. They can also establish the elements of the claim, determine fair compensation, and bring in expert witnesses who are often necessary to prove a malpractice suit.
With their negotiating prowess, these attorneys can efficiently deal with insurers and, if necessary, fight it out in court. All of this makes lawyers the best allies for victims of medical negligence.