What Is Medical Negligence?

Medical negligence is the fault theory on which most medical malpractice cases hinge.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

The term "medical negligence" is often used synonymously with "medical malpractice." Strictly speaking though, medical negligence is only one required legal element of a medical malpractice claim. So, what is medical negligence? Here's one definition:

An act or omission (failure to act) by a medical professional that deviates from the accepted medical standard of care.

While medical negligence is usually the legal concept upon which theses kinds of medical malpractice cases hinge (at least from a "legal fault" perspective), negligence on its own isn't enough to form a valid claim. But when the negligence is the cause of harm to a patient, there may be a good case. Read on to learn more.

What is Negligence?

Negligence is a common legal theory that comes into play when assessing who is at fault in an injury-related civil case. Think of a driver getting into an accident on the road. In a car accident case where one person caused the crash—by breaching their legal duty to obey traffic laws and drive responsibly under the circumstances—that person may be held responsible for all injuries and other losses ("damages") suffered by other parties involved in the crash.

For example, if a driver fails to stop at a red light, that driver is said to be negligent in the eyes of the law (they've also violated a traffic law). If the failure to stop at the red light causes an accident, then the negligent driver is on the financial hook (usually through an insurer) to pay for any damage caused to other drivers, passengers, or pedestrians.

Learn more about how negligence works in a personal injury case.

Medical Negligence Definition

Similar to drivers, doctors and other medical professionals also owe a duty of care to their patients, to provide treatment that is in line with the "medical standard of care," which is usually defined as the level and type of care that a reasonably competent and skilled health care professional, with a similar background and in the same medical community, would have provided under the circumstances that led to the alleged malpractice.

So, medical negligence occurs when a doctor, dentist, nurse, surgeon or any other medical professional performs their job in a way that deviates from this accepted medical standard of care. In keeping with our car accident analogy, if a doctor provides treatment that is sub-standard in terms of accepted medical norms under the circumstances, then that doctor has failed to perform his or her duty, and is said to be negligent.

(See examples of medical negligence.)

How Negligence Can Lead to Medical Malpractice

In short, medical negligence becomes medical malpractice when the doctor's negligent treatment causes injury to the patient—makes the patient's condition worse, causes unreasonable and unexpected complications, or necessitates additional medical treatment, to name just a few examples of what's considered "injury" in a malpractice case.

In other words, the addition of two additional elements—legal causation and damages—are necessary before medical negligence will give rise to a viable medical malpractice lawsuit. If the doctor's medical negligence was not a foreseeable result of the patient's harm (causation), or if the doctor's medical negligence actually had no detrimental effect on the patient's condition (damages), a medical malpractice claim will fall short. Learn more about why medical malpractice cases are a challenge to win.

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