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Can You Sue a Physician Assistant for Medical Malpractice?

When you are getting care in a hospital, you may not know whether the person treating you is a nurse, doctor, physician’s assistant, or other healthcare worker. All of the abbreviations on the care provider’s identification may not make it any clearer until they introduce themselves as “doctor” or “nurse.”

A physician assistant is another type of healthcare professional that has training and licensing to provide a lot of health care but not to the same level as a doctor. Physician assistants (PAs) can and do, make medical mistakes. In some cases, errors made by a PA can be serious and lead to permanent damage. 

Victims of medical injuries may be able to sue the PA for medical malpractice. The injured patient may also be able to file a claim against the hospital and supervising physician to recover damages for their losses. If you have questions about medical errors caused by a physician assistant, contact our office today online or by phone at 800-529-6162.  

What Is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant or physician associate is a healthcare professional. Physician assistants can perform a lot of the functions of a doctor and are increasingly used to care for patients. The medical certification for physician assistance developed in the mid-late 1960s and quickly spread to all states. A PA usually uses the designation PA, PA-C (certified), or RPA (registered).

The scope of practice involves the level of care and type of care that PAs can provide with and without supervision. Different states have different laws for PAs and what they can do, including when they can prescribe medicine and which controlled substances they can prescribe. In most cases, a PA has to have a licensed attorney on record as their supervising physician. After COVID-19, many states expanded the scope of practice of PAs to meet evolving medical needs. 

What Are the Training and Licensing Requirements for a PA?

A physician assistant program is generally a masters-level educational degree. Most programs require the applicant to have a bachelor’s degree, including certain prerequisite courses and some healthcare experience. Most programs take 3 years, in addition to the undergraduate education. The programs include classroom education and clinical work. 

Clinical rotations can involve primary care in hospitals, medical practices, acute facilities, or long-term care facilities. This could include family medicine, internal medicine, OB/GYN, surgery, emergency medicine, pediatrics, or other medical specialties.

In order to become a physician assistant, applicants will have to demonstrate medical knowledge, clinical and technical skills, professional behavior, interpersonal skills, and reasoning and problem-solving abilities. To be certified, applicants have to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). 

Certified PAs also have to be licensed in the state they want to practice. Each state has different licensing requirements. After getting licensed, PAs may also have to take regular continuing medical education (CME) courses to stay licensed, with a recertifying exam every 10 years. 

What Care Can a Physician’s Assistant Provide?

What a physician associate can do for a patient depends on the state’s scope of practice. For example, Maryland law §15–301, spells out the scope of practice for PAs in Maryland. Patient services that can be provided by a PA include: 

  • “Taking complete, detailed, and accurate patient histories;
  • Reviewing patient records to develop comprehensive medical status reports;
  • Performing physical examinations and recording all pertinent patient data;
  • Interpreting and evaluating patient data as authorized by the primary or alternate supervising physician for the purpose of determining management and treatment of patients;
  • Initiating requests for or performing diagnostic procedures as indicated by pertinent data and as authorized by the supervising physician;
  • Providing instructions and guidance regarding medical care matters to patients;
  • Assisting the primary or alternate supervising physician in the delivery of services to patients who require medical care in the home and in health care institutions; and
  • Exercising prescriptive authority under a delegation agreement.”

In most states, including Washington, D.C., Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, PAs are licensed to prescribe, administer, and dispense medications, including controlled substances. However, in Illinois, PAs can only prescribe a 30-day supply for Schedule 2 drugs, which include things like Dilaudid, Vicodin, and Demerol. 

What Happens if a Physician’s Assistant Makes a Mistake?

Physician assistants can review patient records, develop status reports, perform physicals, and prescribe medications. If a PA makes an error, it could cause serious harm to a patient. Types of errors a PA could make include: 

For example, in a routine physical, a reasonable PA may notice a growth, skin malformation, or suspicious lump. That may require further testing or a referral to a specialist. However, if a negligent physician’s assistant missed the suspicious situation, a patient may go untreated for a year or more before another doctor or PA found the problem. That could allow a serious medical condition to grow, spread, or cause further damage. 

Is a Physician Assistant Liable for Medical Errors?

Medical malpractice is a failure to provide proper treatment based on the standards of medical care. If a doctor deviates from medical standards, which causes an injury and harm to the patient, the doctor may be liable for damages. Medical malpractice is a type of professional negligence

When a jury is determining if a doctor is liable for medical errors, they hear from a medical expert who provides expert testimony on the doctor’s actions (or inactions), and whether they were a deviation from standard medical practices. 

Personal Assistant Professional Negligence

A physician assistant is a type of healthcare professional. As such, they are held to a professional standard of care. A PA may be liable for medical injuries if they deviated from PA standards of care and caused injury and harm to the patient. In determining whether the PA was negligent, their actions (or inactions) would be compared to that of a reasonable PA in a similar situation. 

Practicing PAs may be required by the state or their employer to carry malpractice insurance. Like with doctors, malpractice insurance provides some coverage against liability for malpractice. Many medical employers, including hospitals and clinics, likely provide some level of medical malpractice liability insurance for employees. 

If a PA is responsible for causing your injuries, you can file a medical malpractice lawsuit against the PA to recover damages. However, you may also be able to file a claim against the supervising physician or the PA’s employer (hospital, medical office, surgical center, or other healthcare provider). 

Supervising Doctor’s Liability

In some situations, the supervising physician may share liability for the negligent actions of a PA under their supervision. In most states, physician assistants are required to practice under the control of a licensed doctor. The supervising physician may not need to be physically present at all times or provide total supervision but they generally have to be in regular and frequent contact. The supervising physician may also be required to sign off on exams, referrals, prescriptions, diagnostic tests, and other types of services.

A supervising doctor may be liable for any injuries or negligence caused by the PA under their control. If you file a malpractice lawsuit against the PA, you may also name the supervising physician as a defendant. An additional defendant may also help if you have significant damages that go beyond the liability limit of the PA’s malpractice policy. 

Even if the physician didn’t make any mistakes or medical errors, they may be liable because of negligent supervision. Talk to your medical malpractice attorney about who may be liable for your injuries and which parties you can sue to recover damages. 

Is a Hospital Responsible for Medical Malpractice Caused by a Physician’s Assistant?

Many PAs are employees of larger healthcare providers. Almost half of all physician assistants work in doctor’s offices, with about 1/4th working in hospitals. As the employer, a hospital may be liable for the negligence of their employees. This is known as vicarious liability and applies to most employer-employees, not just in health care. 

Vicarious liability is based on the legal idea of respondeat superior, which means “let the master answer,” in Latin. Under vicarious liability, an employer is liable for the acts of an employee that are performed within the course of their employment. 

For example, if a PA in a hospital provided negligent care which caused an injury, the hospital may be liable for damages. However, if the PA got off work and got into a car accident caused by their own negligence, the hospital would generally not be liable because driving home from work was not within the scope of employment. 

You may be able to sue a hospital for medical malpractice caused by an employee physician assistant. Some of the justifications for these laws are that an employer may be in a better financial position than the employee and can cover the damages caused by the employee. After all, the employer was benefiting from the employee’s work and commits negligence in the course of employment.

Apparent Authority of a PA’s Employer

In some cases, an employer may try to avoid liability for an employee’s negligence by calling them an “independent contractor.” However, just because a PA has a contract with the hospital as an independent contractor, it does not always make it so. Whether a PA is an independent contractor or an employee depends on the situation. 

A court may look at several factors to determine if the hospital is liable for the negligence of a PA who is called an independent contractor. Even if the hospital tries to say they are not responsible, you can still hold the hospital liable if they don’t meet the independent contractor test.

In addition, even if a PA is not an employee, the hospital could still be liable based on something called “apparent authority.” Under apparent authority, a hospital could be held liable if it reasonably appears that a PA is an employee. 

For example, under Pennsylvania law, “A hospital may be held vicariously liable for the acts of another health care provider through principles of ostensible agency only if the evidence shows that: 

  1. A reasonably prudent person in the patient’s position would be justified in the belief that the care in question was being rendered by the hospital or its agents; or
  2. The care in question was advertised or otherwise represented to the patient as care being rendered by the hospital or its agents.”

As an example, a patient who is admitted to a hospital sees a physician assistant who checks in on them, administers medication, and makes entries in the medical record. The physician assistant has an ID tag with the logo of the hospital. The name tag may be something that makes a reasonable person believe the PA was an employee of the hospital because the PA was providing care consistent with that performed by a PA-employee. 

How Can I File a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit Against a PA?

You can generally file a medical malpractice lawsuit against a PA in your state civil court. There may be a time limit for filing a malpractice claim. Each state has its own statute of limitations for filing a malpractice claim. If you wait too long, you may be out of luck. Talk to a medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible to make sure your case is filed in time. 

A medical malpractice case generally starts with filing a complaint. The legal complaint sets out the basis of the case and provides notice to the defendants. Complex malpractice cases take months to years before they go to trial. However, most cases will settle before they get to trial. A settlement will allow you to recover a certain amount of money for your injuries in exchange for releasing the legal case against the PA, doctor, or hospital. 

If you are not sure if you have a malpractice case against the PA, talk to an experienced malpractice attorney. A medical malpractice attorney can review your case, identify any possible negligence, and let you know your legal options to recover compensation. If you were injured because of a PA’s negligence, you can recover money to pay for medical bills, loss of income, pain, and suffering. 

If you have questions about your legal rights after a medical injury, contact a law firm that handles medical malpractice cases just like yours. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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