The Duty to Keep Current With Developments in Medical Knowledge

Doctors must complete many years of education before they enter residency programs and become certified doctors. However, education requirements for doctors are not complete upon graduation from medical school or conclusion of a residency program. For doctors, education remains a part of the job requirements for their entire career.

New developments in medicine can bring a new norm to the type of care patients expect from their doctors. If doctors fail to keep up with new developments and if outdated care causes harm to a patient, the doctor can be held liable for injuries.

Physician Code of Ethics

The American Medical Association's Code of Ethics requires doctors to uphold certain standards, including standards to:

  • Be dedicated to providing competent medical care
  • Uphold the standards of professionalism
  • Strive to report physicians deficient in character or competence
  • Continue to study, apply, and advance scientific knowledge, maintain a commitment to medical education

Doctors need to maintain their medical knowledge in order to provide patients with reasonable care.

Evolving Standards

Medicine is not a stagnant field; new developments in technology and new medical studies keep the field constantly evolving. Doctors are required to accept the challenges of the continually developing field and to keep afloat to new developments in order to maintain the standard of care provided to patients.

Maintaining the standard of care is the most important duty for a doctor. The standard of care means the doctor is providing the same level of care and is making the same choices that any other similarly qualified doctor would make in their position under the same circumstances. The standard of care is set through current practices of doctors everywhere. It changes based on developments in the medical field, like the development of a new imaging test that helps doctors see inside patients, and through new medical studies, like a study that confirms the use of a new drug as the best cancer treatment for patients.

Doctors have a duty to their patients to keep up to date with these evolving standards of care. They are required to participate in activities that help maintain their skills, and should constantly review their own knowledge and make sure it meets professional standards as well as the standards that patients expect.

When A Change Becomes A Standard

Doctors are not expected to change their practices overnight every time a new medical study is published or a new medical device is developed. The standard of care changes slowly, and only becomes a “standard” when an overwhelming majority of doctors have adopted it. If a doctor fails to keep up with the standards and if that failing results in serious injury for the patient, the doctor can be held liable for the injury.

Standards may be updated by publications from individual medical boards.

How Doctors Keep Up To Date

Some doctors are explicitly required by medical boards, hospitals, and other organizations to keep up to date with new developments in medicine. Other doctors face the responsibility to maintain standards on their own.

Doctors who have been certified by a medical board face certain requirements to maintain that certification. Usually, those requirements include a segment on continued and a segment on maintaining professional standards. Doctors may be required to pass periodic assessments of their knowledge. Most medical boards require doctors to retake the main qualifying exam every ten years.

Continued medical education (CME) credits are courses that are approved by the American Medical Association or by specific medical boards to both help doctors maintain medical competence and to teach doctors about new developments in their field. Every year accredited providers offer more than 138,000 CME activities doctors can attend.

CME events can be held through live meetings, or through online courses, medical journals or through individualized learning projects. A CME activity might be a workshop, a conference, a scientific meeting, or a personal learning course. Doctors can be awarded CME credits for other activities like publishing a scientific paper, making a presentation, or teaching a course.

State medical boards require doctors to complete a specific number of hours of CME every one to three years. In Maryland, doctors are required to complete 50 hours of CME every two years.

Failing to Maintain Knowledge

When doctors fail to maintain their medical knowledge, patients suffer. Doctors can only meet the standard of care and provide reasonable care when they are informed about national doctor practices. Whether required by a medical board or not, doctors have a duty to maintain knowledge of their field of medicine.

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