A Doctor's Duty of Care

A doctor's legal obligations are the starting point for proving any medical malpractice case.

The first things that must be established in a medical malpractice case are that the doctor owed a legal duty to the patient, and what the appropriate level of care was under the circumstances that led to the doctor's alleged medical negligence. In this article, we’ll take a look at different legal duties in the doctor-patient relationship, and we’ll discuss the medical standard of care in the context of a medical malpractice case.

Proving the Existence of a Doctor-Patient Relationship

In order to prove that a doctor owed a legal duty of care to a patient, the patient must first be able to demonstrate that a doctor-patient relationship existed at the time the alleged medical malpractice occurred.

The relationship between a doctor and a patient is one that is voluntary and usually entered into by agreement. Some things that can be used to support a finding that a doctor-patient relationship existed at the time of the alleged malpractice are evidence (i.e. documents and testimony) showing that:

  • the patient chose to be  treated by this particular doctor
  • the patient submitted to examinations for the purpose of treatment of a certain health problem or condition, and
  • treatment by the doctor was ongoing.

It is a good idea for a patient to obtain a copy of medical records showing the complete course of treatment. This will go a long way toward proving the existence of the doctor-patient relationship.

A patient may not be able to support a claim that the doctor owed a duty to the patient if the doctor is able to show that the doctor-patient relationship was terminated prior to the date on which the alleged medical malpractice is said to have occurred.

The 'Medical Standard of Care' Generally

In treating a patient, a doctor or other care provider must use the degree of care and skill of the average health care provider who practices the provider’s specialty, taking into account the medical knowledge that is available to the physician.

Another way to describe the standard of care is to say that it is based on the customary practices of the average physician, i.e., what the average physician would customarily or typically do in similar circumstances.

A doctor whose conduct falls below this standard of care can be said to have committed medical negligence (although additional elements must also be established before a malpractice claim can be made).

The First Element of a Medical Malpractice Claim

The medical standard of care is also said to act as the first element of a medical malpractice claim. Once the appropriate standard of care is established, the defendant's failure to provide care that meets that standard -- and the resulting harm or injury to the plaintiff --are the next elements that must be established in a successful medical malpractice claim.

A Doctor’s Duty to Warn and Advise

Doctors have the duty to communicate adequate information to patients, that is, to disclose a diagnosis or provide warnings to the patient in a timely manner. A doctor has a duty to inform a patient of the dangers associated with drugs prescribed to the patient, and of the reasonable risks of any procedure or course of treatment. (To learn more, see What Is Informed Consent?)

Further, a doctor has a duty to disclose information regarding possible consequences of treatment that might have an impact on third parties. For example, if a medication is prescribed that causes drowsiness, a doctor has a duty to disclose that fact because it is foreseeable that others could be injured if the patient were to operate heavy machinery or a vehicle under the influence of the medication.

A Doctor’s Duty to Supervise

A doctor is typically permitted to delegate tasks to certain trained healthcare personnel, provided that other doctors would find it reasonable to do so under the circumstances (this traces back to the doctor’s general standard of care, discussed above). The doctor still has a legal obligation to adequately supervise any medical treatment that is delegated.

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