Medical malpractice occurs when a patient is harmed and suffers as a result of a professional medical caregiver failing to provide care that measures up to accepted standards of care. In other words, when a doctor or other caregiver makes a mistake or fails to provide the right care, a patient can be harmed or even killed, and this is medical malpractice.

This is both a medical and a legal concept, and for a patient to win a suit against a doctor or medical facility there must be evidence that the professional was negligent, caused harm, and that the harm resulted in significant damages. Medical malpractice is important because it helps provide justice and compensation for individuals but also because it forces medical professionals to take greater care with patients and to work up to a certain standard of care.

What is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice is when a doctor or other medical caregiver harms a patient because of a failure to provide quality, competent care. The subject of medical malpractice may be an individual physician or other professional, it may be a team of caregivers, or it may be a hospital, medical center, or other facility that failed to provide good care.

Medical malpractice is a kind of negligence, and there are many reasons why a patient may have been harmed. It may be the result of an error in making a diagnosis, making a mistake with treatment or medication, failing to diagnose or treat a condition, or many other mistakes, omissions, incompetence, or simply not providing good care based on accepted standards of care. A patient who believes he or she has been the victim of this kind of medical negligence can start a lawsuit against the individual or group responsible. This is a medical malpractice suit.

In the ten years between 2006 and 2016, $143,713 payments were made in medical malpractice suits. The top four states for malpractice suits during that time were California, Texas, Florida, and New York. According to a study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins, medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Only cancer and heart disease kill more people. The same study estimated that about 250,000 people die each year because of medical errors.

The Four Legal Elements of Medical Malpractice

The rules of medical malpractice suits vary by state, but there are some basic guidelines that are common to any case. Most importantly there are four factors that are crucial in proving that medical malpractice has occurred. Any suit must meet these requirements to be successful:

  • The existence of a medical relationship. First it has to be established that there was a professional, medical relationship between the patient and the individual or team accused of malpractice. This shows that there was a legal duty on the part of the professionals to provide reasonable care. This is easy to prove in most cases, as the relationship is assumed as soon as a patient comes under the care of a medical professional.
  • A breach of professional duty. A breach of duty occurs in the context of standards of care. Defining standards of care can be tricky, but in a malpractice case it must be shown that a medical professional violated these standards resulting in a breach of their professional duty to the patient. A professional duty to provide certain standards of care doesn’t necessarily mean the best care, but it must be reasonable and competent.
  • Negligence caused harm. A case of malpractice only exists if that breach of duty leads to an injury or some other type of harm in the patient. This can also be tricky to prove, as the professional actions or negligence have to be separated from the illness or injury the patient already had. For instance, if a patient dies of cancer, the family may believe that the medical team was negligent in some way, but it can be difficult to determine whether it was the cancer or negligence that led to the death.
  • The harm resulted in damages. There must be some specific and significant damage caused to the patient if all the above elements are proven. For example, negligence may have caused chronic pain, death, mental anguish, expensive additional medical bills, or an inability to go back to work and earn a living.

Examples of Medical Malpractice

There are nearly endless examples of what constitutes medical malpractice, but there are some general types that are more common or that are more likely to occur:

  • Failure to diagnose a condition, which results in a lack of treatment.
  • Misdiagnosing a patient, which can lead to improper treatment.
  • Improperly treating a patient.
  • Errors made during surgery or performing unnecessary surgery.
  • Failure to follow up after treatment or care, or poor or inadequate follow up.
  • Not warning a patient of the risks of a procedure or type of treatment.
  • Failure to order adequate tests.
  • Using the wrong medication or the wrong dosage.
  • Mistakes made with the administration of anesthesia.
  • Infections in the hospital.
  • Failure to consider a patient’s medical history.
  • Prematurely discharging a patient from care.
  • Failure to recognize symptoms in a patient.

The Importance of Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice suits are important in several ways. For individuals and their families, these suits can provide compensation that helps them cope with an injury or illness that resulted from malpractice. It also provides a sense of justice. But these suits are not just important for the individuals harmed by malpractice. They are also important for overall public health. They set standards for care that physicians and other professionals must consider when providing healthcare.

For example, in a 1974 case, a patient sued her eye doctor because she went blind from glaucoma, a disease her doctor failed to test her for. At the time, it was not standard procedure to test patients under the age of 40 for this disease, but the case determined that the patient should have been offered the option. Because of that case, doctors had to reconsider how policies are made for standard practice and diagnostics.

In 2001 a case helped establish the modern meaning of standards of care for patients. A patient died after doctors failed to diagnose his abdominal aneurysm soon enough. The man’s family did not win the case, and it was ruled in favor of the doctors. However, this result helped to outline the fact that hindsight cannot be used to determine good standards of care.

Medical malpractice is a very serious claim that should not be taken lightly. Before you tackle this legal situation, be sure that you understand what it means and what it entails. If you do believe you have a valid medical malpractice case, it is important to get the advice and guidance of a legal team or professional with extensive experience with this type of lawsuit.