What Is a Doctor’s Duty of Care?

Posted in Medical Malpractice on October 3, 2018

Every adult in the United States will at some point owe a duty of care to others. For example, drivers have a duty of care to other drivers and pedestrians to follow the rules of the road and operate their vehicles safely. Daycare supervisors and school faculty have a duty of care to prevent harm to the children in their care. For medical professionals, their duty of care requires them to administer safe and effective treatment using approved methods and prevent patient harm. In any given medical situation, the medical community adheres to a “standard of care” for treating the patient.

What Is the Standard of Care?

“Standard of care” refers to the quality of treatment a patient should expect for a given condition. For example, a patient with a broken arm may require pain medication, and the doctor may need to set the bone in the proper position so it heals correctly, and apply a cast. The doctor may also need to prescribe medications for the patient after the initial treatment. Imagine a doctor is treating a patient for a broken arm but fails to fix the cast to the arm properly. The patient’s arm subsequently heals in the wrong position, and he or she must return to have the bone re-broken and reset so it heals correctly. In this situation, the first doctor failed to meet an acceptable standard of care for the patient.

In a medical malpractice lawsuit, a jury must decide whether another reasonable individual with skills similar to the defendant’s would have acted differently in the same situation. This often requires testimony from expert witnesses with relevant backgrounds in medical disciplines. For example, a retired oncologist may act as an expert witness in a case and testify as to whether a defendant oncologist’s cancer treatment met the standard of care for the plaintiff’s situation.

Duty to Warn

Doctors also have a duty to warn patients about potential risks of any type of treatment. For example, a patient who requires back surgery may have difficulty using his arms after the surgery, and he has the right to know about this risk before agreeing to the procedure. When a healthcare professional fails to properly warn a patient about the risks associated with a course of treatment, that professional violates the standard of care and commits medical malpractice.

Elements of a Medical Malpractice Claim

The first element of a medical malpractice claim is establishing the medical standard of care for the situation in question. The plaintiff’s Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer must work closely with expert witnesses to determine whether a defendant failed to meet the standard of care for the patient’s condition. Medicine is inherently uncertain, honest mistakes happen, and some conditions mimic the symptoms of others. However, physicians must exercise care and administer safe and effective treatments to limit the chances of harming patients. The second element of a medical malpractice claim is proving that a defendant failed to meet the standard of care for the patient’s condition.

Once a plaintiff establishes these first two elements, the next step is proving that the claimed damages resulted from the defendant’s negligence and not some other cause. For example, a patient suing for a medical condition needs to have proof that the condition resulted from the defendant’s negligence and was not a preexisting condition or an injury from another source. The plaintiff must also provide compelling evidence that clearly shows the extent of his or her damages.

Medical malpractice claims are very complex, time-sensitive legal matters that demand professional representation. A plaintiff’s attorney will need to compile clear and convincing evidence that a defendant failed to meet the standard of care for the plaintiff and coordinate with expert witnesses to build a compelling case. When a doctor or other healthcare professional fails to meet his or her duty of care and harms a patient, a medical malpractice lawsuit offers the patient the best chance of recovery.