Can a Doctor Be Sued for Delaying Treatment?

Any healthcare provider - a doctor, dentist, OB/GYN, etc. - can be sued for delaying treatment or diagnosis of an injury or illness, but proving your case may be difficult.

A doctor or other health care professional’s failure to provide timely care can amount to medical malpractice, but there are a few things you’ll need to prove in order to bring a successful lawsuit.

Did The Delay Amount to Negligence?

First, you’ll need to establish that the doctor’s delay in giving you proper care amounted to medical negligence. A medical malpractice lawsuit hinges on whether or not the treatment in question was sub-standard when measured against what a reasonably skilled and competent physician would have done (or not done) under similar circumstances.

Proving medical negligence usually requires the testimony of a medical expert witness who will establish what the appropriate course of treatment would have been under the circumstances, and then explain how the doctor’s conduct fell short of that standard.

For Example: Intubation of a patient is often critical in emergency situations where a patient’s airway has been blocked. There are well established standards of care regarding the intubation of patients in emergency situations – it’s a critical, life-saving procedure.

If a doctor fails to intubate a patient in a timely manner, brain damage or even death may result. This type of delay in emergency treatment could amount to medical negligence in many circumstances. If a medical expert testifies that a “reasonable” doctor would have intubated the patient sooner, then a case of negligence could be established.

Did The Delay Cause Harm?

The second main component of your case will be the establishment of medical malpractice  damages. To sue the doctor, it’s not enough that he or she failed to treat or diagnose a disease or injury in time; it must also have caused additional injury. That means showing exactly how -- and to what extent -- the delay in the provision of medical care harmed you. This will also usually require the testimony of an expert medical witness.

There are a number of different ways that improper delay in the provision of medical care could result in harm to a patient -- the delay may have made your condition worse, it may have negated the possibility that certain treatment could be administered, it could have blunted the effectiveness of a certain treatment method, or it could have unnecessarily prolonged or intensified your pain and discomfort.

For Example: A timely diagnosis of cancer is critical to successfully treating it. The sooner cancer is diagnosed, the greater the options for (and effect of) treatment. But the diagnosis of cancer is a complex process which includes physical exams, considerations of the patient’s family history, and testing by experts.

If an expert testifies that a doctor had the opportunity to diagnose cancer earlier but failed (negligently) to do so, it would then have to be shown through complex medical evidence that the patient suffered additional harm. Proving that a delay in diagnosis lead to additional injury – death from cancer that otherwise may have been cured, or prolonged treatment and suffering that should have been avoided – is necessary to establish a medical malpractice claim.

How To Assert Your Rights

Medical malpractice cases are inherently complex and difficult to prove. There is no law that says, “If this doctor failed to do X procedure in Y amount of time, negligence has occurred”. You’ll need to find a lawyer with experience in medical malpractice cases (these lawyers typically have a medical expert available to look into potential cases) to look at the facts of your case, and determine if all the required legal and medical elements are there, to justify pursuing a medical malpractice lawsuit.

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