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Can You Sue a Psychologist for Medical Malpractice?

Many patients seek out mental health care under a psychologist to address their behaviors, emotional problems, learning disabilities, and other mental disorders. Psychologists can be easier for some patients to access than a medical doctor and many patients feel they get a more personal interaction with their psychologist. 

Although psychologists are not medical doctors, they have a lot of responsibility and authority over their patients’ care. When a psychologist goes outside the standards of practice of their profession, it can put the patient in danger. Injury or harm caused by a psychologist’s breach of duty can be professional negligence. The injury victim of a negligent psychologist may be able to recover damages for losses and damages. 

A professional negligence claim against a psychologist can be different from a malpractice claim against a doctor. It is important to understand your legal options after a psychological injury caused by an irresponsible mental health professional. If your psychological care went wrong and you suffered an injury or loss, contact our office today online or by phone at 800-529-6162.  

Scope of Practice of a Psychologist

The scope of practice includes the types of professional services that a psychologist is qualified to perform and undertake. A professional psychology license issued in your state allows a psychologist to present themselves as a psychological professional and provider certain psychological services. As a limited practice license, psychologists are also supposed to refrain from certain services, like offering medical advice or prescribing medication. 

Psychologists often help patients who seek counseling or treatment for traumatic experiences, addiction, stressful events, anxiety, or talk therapy. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, “psychologists are licensed in all fifty states and DC to perform assessments, psychotherapy, and crisis intervention services.” Check with your state to understand the scope of practice of psychologists in your area. 

Education and Training Requirements for a Psychologist

There are specific education and training requirements for psychologists, depending on the state licensing board. The education, practice, and continuing education requirements vary by state. In most states, psychologists are required to have a doctoral degree in psychology and must pass the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards’ Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP). 

After successfully getting a qualifying degree and passing the board examination, psychologists have a practice requirement ranging between 1,500-4,000 practice hours under supervision. After getting licenses, psychologists generally have a continuing education requirement, ranging between 10-60 hours of coursework over 1 to 2 years, to stay up to date on requirements and changes in psychological practice. Increasingly, states are cooperating to allow psychologists in other states to practice telepsychology without additional state licensure, to address the shortage of psychiatrists in some states. 

For most psychologists who have attained a doctorate degree, they may receive: 

  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
  • Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are 3 types of doctoral programs, including clinical, counseling, and school psychology. In general, those looking to go into teaching or research may pursue the Ph.D. program. Psychologists who want to work with patients or open their own psychological practice may opt for the Psy.D. A doctor of psychology degree generally takes 4 to 7 years to complete, after finishing a bachelor’s degree. 

Is a Psychologist a Doctor? Why Does the Psychologist Call Themselves Doctor?

This is one of the confusing parts about the difference between healthcare-related degrees and medical doctors. A medical doctor is not the same as someone with a doctorate degree. A doctorate degree is an advanced level educational qualification based on education and other qualifying factors. A medical doctor is not the same as someone with a doctorate-level of education. A medical doctor can do things like diagnosing physical conditions and prescribe medicine. In general, psychologists cannot diagnose physical illnesses or write a prescription for a controlled substance. 

If you ask the American Psychological Association, psychologists with a PhD can call themselves “doctor.” However, most U.S. news outlets and the Associated Press (AP) disagree. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, the honorific title of “Dr.” is reserved for those who hold a doctor of medicine degree, including a doctor of: 

The reason for limiting the use of Dr. for medical doctors is based on the public understanding of what a doctor is. The public generally identifies Dr. only with physicians and expanding Dr. to anyone with a PhD may confuse people to believe someone with an advanced degree has the same type of medical training and education as a medical doctor. After all, most lawyers hold a Juris Doctor (JD) degree but you sure wouldn’t want your lawyer to put themselves out as a doctor. 

Difference Between a Psychologist and Psychiatrist

There is also a lot of confusion between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. They are related fields but very different professions. The primary difference is that psychiatrists are medical doctors. As a medical doctor, a psychiatrist specializes in the study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders. 

Psychiatrists can diagnose and treat patients using treatments like psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, medication, and hospitalization. Psychiatrists can act as the primary care physician for patients’ mental health. Prospective psychiatrists must complete an undergraduate degree in a field of science, and then complete medical school and earn either a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.). Psychiatrists then generally complete a residency program and may go on to an additional fellowship in a subspecialty of psychiatry. 

According to the American Board of Medical Specialties, there are a number of areas of specialization where a psychiatrist can get board certified, including psychiatry, neurology, and neurology with a special qualification in child neurology. 

In summary, psychiatrists and psychologists both deal with mental health. However, psychiatrists have a broader scope of practice that can include diagnosing patients for physical conditions, prescribing medication, and acting as a primary care physician for mental health. 

In practice, psychologists and psychiatrists may work together in providing comprehensive patient care. A psychiatrist may be acting as the primary care doctor for the patient’s mental health with a psychologist seeing the patient more regularly for counseling and psychological therapy, with the psychologist providing regular updates to the supervising psychiatrist. 

Common Psychological Treatments 

For people who are not familiar with psychological treatment, the introduction to psychotherapy is very different from physical medical care. Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is a common method for addressing mental health problems. Mental health conditions that patients may seek therapy for include

A psychiatrist practicing psychotherapy generally involves one-on-one sessions to learn about the patient’s condition, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Patients can learn to recognize negative emotions and behaviors and work to manage their negative reactions. According to the APA, types of psychotherapy can include: 

  • Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy
  • Behavior therapy
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Humanistic therapy
  • Integrative or holistic therapy

How Can a Psychologist Cause Serious Injury?

In a negligence case, there has to be a duty, breach, causation, and harm. These are the 4 elements of any negligence claim, similar to a medical malpractice lawsuit. In order to prove negligence and recover damages, the plaintiff has to prove each element of the offense, by a preponderance of the evidence.

There generally exists a duty between a psychologist and a patient when a psychologist begins treatment or agrees to take on a new patient. In most negligence claims involving a psychologist, the duty is not at issue. However, duty may be an issue when the psychologist claims that they never agreed to treat the patient or there was another psychologist or psychiatrist who was responsible for the patient at the time. 

A breach is the breach of the psychologist’s duty to act as a reasonable psychologist would under similar circumstances. This may be a question that is best left up to a psychologist expert’s opinion. Other psychologists are trained and educated in the standards of psychotherapy and understand how to treat patients and react to patients, given the circumstances. If a psychologist deviates from the standards of psychological care, they may have breached their professional duty. 

For example, a psychologist tells their patient at their last session that they can stop taking their anti-depression medication. The psychologist is not a medical doctor and should not make medication decisions for the patient without the input from a psychiatrist or medical doctor. If the patient later suffers severe depression and commits suicide, the psychologist may be considered negligent because providing a medical diagnosis or prescription orders is not within the psychologist’s scope of practice. The psychologist could be liable for the wrongful death of the patient if a jury finds the psychologist’s advice was the cause of suicide. 

Abuse of Trust and Abuse of Power

One of the common breaches of malpractice for psychologists involves an abuse of the professional relationship. This could involve abusing the apparent authority the psychologist has over a patient or engaging in a sexual relationship with a patient. While the psychologist and even the patient may believe they can have multiple relationships with a therapist, it can be impossible to completely separate the relationships. 

Under the ethical guidelines of psychology, Code 10.5: “Psychologists must not engage in sexual intimacies with current therapy clients.” Psychologists are also prohibited from terminating therapy in order to bypass this standard. Going further, psychologists do not accept as patients or clients persons with whom they have engaged in sexual intimacies. Psychologists are not to engage in sexual intimacies with former patients for at least 2 years after the termination of therapy. 

Patients may not know the ethical guidelines of professional psychology and they rely upon the professional guidance of their therapist. When a therapist crosses the line between therapy and sexual intimacy, it can open up the patient to serious mental and physical harm. These kinds of abuses of power and position can also permanently damage the patient’s trust in other psychologists, mental health professionals, and even medical doctors in the future. 

Injury and Harm Caused by Psychological Negligence

A breach of professional standards may only be negligence if it causes harm. Harm in a malpractice claim or negligence claim includes more than just physical injury. Damages can include physical harm, psychological harm, emotional distress, loss of income, future medical and psychological care, and pain and suffering. For example, if a psychologist caused such distress in a patient that the patient became too depressed to return to work, the damages suffered may include the time the patient was unable to earn an income

Is Psychological Malpractice Considered Medical Malpractice?

Psychological malpractice may not technically be considered medical malpractice. However, a psychological malpractice claim may be very similar to a medical malpractice case. Instead of evaluating the patient’s care compared to the medical standards of care, negligence may be based on the psychological standards of care. 

If the psychologist failed to act as a reasonable psychologist would, given their training, education, and clinical experience, the psychologist may have committed professional negligence. If a psychologist was found to be negligent, then the patient may be able to recover compensation for damages caused by the psychologist’s negligent care. 

Psychologist Malpractice and Recovering Damages

Many psychological patients are reluctant to come forward after mistreatment by a psychologist. Many psychological patients are already in a fragile emotional state and negligent psychologists may take advantage of vulnerable patients to exploit them for financial or abusive reasons. Some patients even suffer due to inappropriate sexual misconduct by psychologists who know that patients are less likely to report sexual violations. 

It is important to report misconduct by a psychologist, even if you think it only caused minor harm. Psychologists are often in a position of power and they need to take their responsibilities seriously. If you believe you were taken advantage of by a psychologist or if your psychologist gave you negligent care that caused serious harm, you can contact a law firm that handles professional malpractice cases. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.


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