What is the "Standard of Care" in a Medical Malpractice Case?

A health care professional's deviation from the "standard of care" can lead to a medical malpractice lawsuit.

A medical malpractice case can be based on a health care provider's act, or failure to act, but the question that must be answered is whether or not the provider's conduct amounted to medical negligence.

In personal injury law, negligence means the failure to exercise the proper amount of care under what lawyers call the "reasonable person" standard. To simplify, if a reasonable person would have taken a certain action, then not taking that action would be considered negligent. Alternatively, if a reasonable person would not have done a certain thing, then doing it would be considered negligent.

However, in medical malpractice cases, most courts define negligence as a health care professional’s failure to provide treatment that meets the applicable medical standard of care under the circumstances. In this article, we'll explain what that means.

What Does "Standard of Care" Mean?

The first thing to know is that "standard of care" is a legal term, not a medical term. That means it is primarily lawyers, not doctors, who use it. In general, the only times that most doctors talk or think about the standard of care is when they are testifying in court on medical malpractice cases, or when they are attending medical malpractice seminars.

Different states define it in slightly different ways, but the medical "standard of care" usually means the degree of care and skill of the average health care provider who practices in the provider’s specialty, taking into account the medical knowledge that is available in the field. So, the standard of care is typically based on the hypothetical practices of a reasonably competent health care professional in the same or similar communtiy. (See examples of medical malpractice to understand what sub-standard care looks like.)

'Customary Practices of the Average Provider' vs. the 'Reasonable Provider'

Remember that "reasonableness" is the standard for ordinary negligence, but doctors and other health care professionals are judged by the customary practices of similar care providers. These standards certainly sound the same, but the difference arises in the context of legal liability. Physicians and other professionals are often afraid that lay people, including patients and jurors, might interpret reasonable care as ideal care, or perfect care, and physicians cannot provide perfect care. Learn more about when it's medical malpractice and when it isn't.

Health care professionals know that most medical procedures and treatments involve some risk and/or complications, and they don’t want patients thinking that all complications involve negligence. Certainly, some complications are the result of negligence, but many aren't out of the ordinary. So providers don’t want their patients (and the general public) thinking that anything other than a full, setback-free recovery must amount to medical malpractice.

One good example of complications in standard medical treatment is anesthesia. The administration of anesthesia always involves risk. There is nothing that even the best anesthesiologist in the world can do to reduce the risk of anesthesia to zero. Sometimes the anesthesiologist can do everything by the book, and the patient will still have a bad reaction to the anesthesia.

Another way to look at the difference is to compare the legal and medical viewpoints on standard of care. While health care professionals tend to believe that reasonable care includes the customary practices of the average provider, the typical legal viewpoint is that reasonable care and the customary practices of a provider in the same or similar community are separate standards of care, although with some overlap.

Does the 'Reasonableness' Standard Ever Apply in Medical Malpractice Cases?

Despite what physicians may want, some states have been moving toward the standard "reasonableness" definition in assessing liability in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Other states use what is called the "second school of thought" or the "respectable minority" definition, in which doctors and lawyers recognize that there may be more than one acceptable method of delivering care to a patient in a given situation. If you have specific questions about how your state defines the medical standard of care, or you just want to understand your options if you think you've been harmed by sub-standard care, it may be time to reach out to a medical malpractice attorney.

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