Legal Liability for Unnecessary Hysterectomy

A hysterectomy can be a life-saving procedure, with the unfortunate consequence of leaving the patient unable to bear children. When performed unnecessarily, malpractice liability issues arise.

Approximately 600,000 women undergo hysterectomy every year in the United States, which makes it one of the most commonly performed surgeries. Many hysterectomy procedures are necessary due to certain cancers. A small amount are performed in emergency situations, such as excessive, uncontrollable bleeding following childbirth. But some hysterectomies are performed unnecessarily, leaving the patient permanently unable to bear children and sometimes leading to emotional and sexual difficulties.

In this article, we describe some common scenarios involving unnecessary hysterectomies that can lead to medical malpractice lawsuits, and we then provide a basic outline for what such a lawsuit might look like.

Liability in Emergency Situations

In relatively rare situations, emergencies, such as excessive uncontrollable bleeding after childbirth, can lead doctors to consider performing an emergency hysterectomy. In such a situation, a doctor usually is not required to obtain the informed consent of the patient. A doctor may act without the patient’s consent if treatment is necessary to save the life of the patient. But there may be ways for a doctor to stop the bleeding without rendering the patient infertile.

Excessive, uncontrollable bleeding after childbirth is usually caused by postpartum hemorrhage. Doctors should follow a series of steps to deal with postpartum hemorrhage, including massaging the uterus, using the medication Pitocin, removing excess placenta, and beginning a blood transfusion.

In most cases, only after this process has failed to reduce bleeding should a doctor proceed to surgery. Even then, a doctor may have surgical options that could stop the bleeding and leave the woman’s reproductive organs intact.

Whether a doctor followed the proper procedure is a complex medical question that varies based on the specific circumstances of any case. But in some cases, if a doctor performs a hysterectomy without exhausting other reasonable medical options, the doctor may be liable for medical malpractice.

Liability in Nonemergency Situations

Some commentators argue that doctors perform significantly more hysterectomy procedures than necessary. But some patients who have used hysterectomy as a tool to resolve severe menstrual cycle problems swear by the results. In some cases, a legal issue may arise when a patient ostensibly chooses to undergo a hysterectomy, but is not adequately advised of all of the health and life-related impacts that the procedure may have, and/or is not thoroughly informed of other, less invasive and less permanent treatment options. In cases like these, a patient may be able to sue a doctor for performing an unnecessary hysterectomy.

The key to such a lawsuit in a non-emergency situation is the concept of “informed consent” which requires a doctor to describe the nature of a procedure as well as possible alternatives and consequences to a patient. Of course, in most cases, a doctor will provide some level of information about a surgical procedure. The critical question that will determine whether the doctor is liable for malpractice is usually whether the doctor provided sufficient information about the procedure. In cases involving the absence of informed consent and surgery, it is irrelevant that the procedure was performed correctly.

(Learn more about the risks of hysterectomies and patient options when something goes wrong.)

Filing a Malpractice Claim

In order to hold the doctor legally liable for medical malpractice, the patient (usually through his or her attorney and a retained medical expert witness) will show how the doctor deviated from the accepted medical standard of care in either determining whether a hysterectomy was necessary or in obtaining informed consent. The attorney and the medical expert will first walk the jury through what a reasonably skilled physician would have done under similar circumstances and then show how the doctor’s chosen course of treatment in the instant case failed to meet that standard.

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