A Doctor's Legal Duty of Care Explained

Learn about what it takes to prove a medical malpractice lawsuit, starting with the doctor's legal obligations.

In a medical malpractice case against any kind of doctor—from a general practitioner to a specialist—you must prove two things at the start:

  • that the doctor owed a legal duty to you as the patient, and
  • what the appropriate level of care was under the circumstances that led to the doctor's medical negligence.

In this article, we'll take a look at how different legal duties arise in the doctor-patient relationship, and we'll discuss the all-important "medical standard of care" as it relates to a medical malpractice case.

Proving the Existence of a Doctor-Patient Relationship

In the eyes of the law, an injured person can't usually recover compensation from someone else (the defendant) unless there was a violation of a "legal duty of care." In the context of a car accident case, for example, drivers owe anyone else on the road a legal duty to act with reasonable care and caution when driving. A person violating that duty (as by running a red light) can mean that they're legally responsible for resulting injuries and property loss.

Similarly, a doctor has a legal duty to treat patients in line with the appropriate "medical standard of care." The doctor's failure to meet that standard can amount to medical malpractice. But, to have a successful claim, the person suing (the plaintiff) must first show the existence of a doctor-patient relationship.

This element of a medical malpractice case isn't usually in dispute, but questions can crop up if it's unclear whether the doctor you're trying to sue was in fact treating you at the time of the alleged malpractice. If your course of treatment involved a number of referrals to specialists, and only intermittent care by the doctor you're trying to sue, there could be legitimate questions about which healthcare professional was actually treating you at the time you claim you were harmed.

In any case, you can usually establish that a doctor-patient relationship existed at the time of the alleged malpractice with evidence (like documents and testimony) showing that:

  • you chose to be treated by this particular doctor
  • the doctor examined you for treatment of a health problem or condition, and
  • treatment by the doctor was ongoing.

What Is the Medical Standard of Care?

There's no universal definition of the "medical standard of care." But typically, in treating a patient, a doctor (or other care provider) must use the degree of care and skill that a competent doctor (or other care provider) practicing in the same medical field would provide.

If your doctor's conduct falls below the standard of care, your doctor might have committed medical negligence. But keep in mind that there are more elements to prove before malpractice can be established.

The First Elements of a Medical Malpractice Claim

The medical standard of care is generally part of the first element of a medical malpractice claim: You need to show that the doctor violated it. In all but the simplest of cases, you'll need a qualified medical expert witness (usually a medical professional with experience in the same field as your doctor) to testify as to what the appropriate standard of care was in the treatment scenario that led to your case.

Once the appropriate standard of care is established, you must then prove (usually through the same expert witness) exactly how your doctor or healthcare provider failed to provide care that meets that standard.

You must also show how you were harmed or injured as a result of your doctor's failure to meet the standard of care. Proving all of these elements is critical to mounting a successful medical malpractice claim.

But remember that, if your case gets far enough, the doctor you're suing will have a lawyer and an expert witness or two arguing that the doctor's conduct met or exceeded the applicable standard of care. That's why a medical malpractice lawsuit is often referred to as a "battle of experts."

Read on for a few ways that a doctor can fail to meet the medical standard of care.

Treatment Mistakes

The most direct way a doctor can fail to meet the standard of care is by making the kind of physical or mental error that a competent physician wouldn't have made while treating the patient. These kinds of mistakes include:

  • surgical errors and other mistakes made during a procedure
  • misdiagnosis
  • medication-related errors (including those related to proper dosage and drug interaction), and
  • discharging a patient too soon.

See more examples of medical negligence.

A Doctor's Duty to Warn and Advise

Doctors have the duty to give their patients adequate information—that is, to thoroughly explain a diagnosis and provide information as to risks and potential outcomes in a timely manner. Your doctor has a duty to tell you about the dangers associated with drugs you're prescribed and the reasonable risks of any procedure or course of treatment, so you can decide if treatment is worth the risk. (The process of arming the patient with all relevant information is called "informed consent.")

Informed consent also means your doctor has a duty to tell you about any possible side effects of treatment that might impact others. For example, if you're prescribed a medication that causes drowsiness, your doctor must inform you of the dangers of operating heavy machinery or driving a vehicle while using the medicine.

A Doctor's Duty to Supervise

Your doctor can delegate some medical tasks to certain trained healthcare personnel, provided that other doctors would find it reasonable to do so under the circumstances (this rule traces back to the doctor's general standard of care, discussed above). For instance, your doctor might have a nurse or medical assistant give you a shot or draw blood for lab work.

Even so, your doctor still has a legal obligation to adequately supervise any delegated medical treatment. If you're harmed by the actions of a health care professional who was employed by or acting under the supervision of your doctor, there's a good chance your doctor is still on the legal hook for malpractice.

On the other hand, a doctor who reasonably expected that a colleague or another health care professional would properly perform a routine task probably wouldn't be legally responsible for that person's mistake.

Holding Your Doctor Accountable

Patients seeking healthcare don't expect to feel worse as a result of their doctor's action (or inaction). But it's important to remember that a bad medical outcome isn't necessarily a case of malpractice.

And even when you have evidence showing that you were harmed by your doctor's sub-standard care, winning a medical malpractice lawsuit is notoriously difficult. Having an experienced lawyer on your side is crucial to coming away with a good outcome. You can connect with a medical malpractice lawyer near you using the features right on this page.

Learn more about finding the right medical malpractice attorney for you and your case.

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