Can a Doctor Be Sued for Delaying Treatment?

A physician (or any health care professional) might be liable for medical malpractice if a delay in treatment or diagnosis causes harm, but proving your case can be difficult.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

When a doctor or other health care professional fails to provide timely care to a patient, a viable medical malpractice case can result, but being successful in this kind of lawsuit means being able to answer "yes" to a few key questions (and it also means backing up those answers with strong evidence).

Did the Treatment Delay Amount to Medical Negligence?

First, you'll need to establish that the health care professional's delay in giving you care amounted to medical negligence under the circumstances.

Almost all medical malpractice lawsuits hinge on whether or not the health care professional's actions (or their inaction) met or fell short of the "medical standard of care." This is something of a legal yardstick against which the defendant health care professional's conduct will be measured.

The medical standard of care is typically defined as the type and degree of care and skill of an average health care provider in the defendant's specialty or area of practice, taking into account the medical knowledge available at the time, and the standards of other professionals in the same (or in a similar) community.

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.

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. If a medical expert testifies that the appropriate standard of care requires intubating the patient sooner, then a case of negligence could be established.

Learn more about the medical standard of care in a medical malpractice case.

Did the Treatment Delay Cause Harm to the Patient?

The second main component of your case will be the establishment of quantifiable harm resulting from the health care professional's medical negligence.

If you want to sue a doctor for medical malpractice, it's not enough that to show that the doctor failed to treat a disease or injury in time; the delay must also have caused additional injury ("damages" in legalese). That means showing exactly how—and to what extent—the delay in the provision of medical care harmed you. As with the liability element discussed above, this damages element 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 the patient's 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 the patient's pain and discomfort.

Example: A timely diagnosis of cancer is often critical. The sooner cancer is diagnosed, the greater the options for (and effect of) treatment. But the diagnosis of cancer is a complex process that includes physical exams, considerations of the patient's family history, and testing.

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—prolonged treatment and additional pain and suffering that should have been avoided—is necessary to establish a medical malpractice claim.

Get more details on proving a medical malpractice case and the damages component of a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Making Your Best Medical Malpractice Case

Medical malpractice cases are inherently complex and difficult to win. There is no law you can point to that says, "If this doctor failed to do X procedure in Y amount of time, negligence has occurred." Proving your case means having the right lawyer and the right experts on your side who can sift through and analyze significant amount of evidence and put together your best case.

When you're ready, learn more about finding the right medical malpractice attorney, or use the tools on this page to connect with a medical malpractice lawyer near you.

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