Medical studies have found that every year up to 440,000 patients suffer fatal injuries in hospitals. That makes medical errors the third leading cause of death in the United States behind cancer and heart disease.
Medical malpractice occurs when a patient suffers an injury as a result of negligent or incompetent care by a healthcare professional. But not all injuries are the result of malpractice. Doctors are required to meet certain standards, to follow certain guidelines, and to maintain certain ethical principals. When health care professionals breach these standards, and when that breach results in a serious injury, the health care professional may be held liable for medical malpractice.
Standards of Care
The most basic element of malpractice cases is a breach in the standard of care. The standard of care refers to certain guidelines that doctors must follow in order to provide adequate care to patients. The standard of care is generally defined as care that is equivalent to the care that any other reasonable doctor with the same qualifications would provide to the patient in a similar situation.
The standard of care does not refer to one overarching rule of care all doctors follow, it refers to guidelines each individual specialty sets up that should inform doctors how to provide care to patients. Standards are set through complex interactions among medical researchers, medical journal writers, and practicing doctors.
Part of a physician's duty is to keep up with evolving standards of care. Doctors are required to meet new standards in a timely manner as new information is discovered and new technologies are released. Doctors are also required to meet the new standards in a timely manner.
Negligence and incompetence occur when doctors fail to meet standards or “breach” a standard of care. If a breach in the standard resulted in a serious injury to a patient, the doctors can be held liable for the injury.
Basics of a Medical Malpractice Case
Four basic elements must be true for patients to prove a successful malpractice case:
1) A doctor-patient relationship existed
Establishing a doctor-patient relationship is the most fundamental step to establishing a medical malpractice case. A doctor-patient relationship means that the patient and doctor both knowingly and intentionally entered into a professional agreement for care. Advice from a friend's doctor cannot be the basis of a different patient's lawsuit. While this relationship is referred to as a “doctor-patient” relationship, it also includes the duty any health care professional has towards a patient that they have agreed to treat including, for example, nurses.
2) The doctor breached the standard of care
An established doctor-patient relationship means that the doctor had a duty to meet the standard of care. Medical malpractice occurs when the doctor or healthcare professional fails to meet the standard and provides unreasonable or incompetent care.
3) The patient was injured
A patient cannot have a successful medical malpractice case because a doctor was rude or said something the patient didn't like. Medical malpractice cases are reserved for real, serious injuries to patients. Most malpractice attorneys will not accept cases where patients suffered a minor, superficial injury or cases when the patient simply disliked the results of the procedure (as is common in plastic surgery cases). The work production that goes into a medical malpractice case necessitates that the case involves a serious, costly injury.
4) The breach in care directly resulted in harm to the patient
Successful medical malpractice cases hold a health care professional responsible for the injury of a patient. This is only possible if the patient can prove that the injury was the direct result of the health care professional's negligence or incompetence. It can be true that a doctor breached the standard of care and that the patient suffered an injury. But if the two are not related then the doctor cannot be held liable for the injury.
In order to have a medical malpractice case, all four of these factors must be true.
Is It Malpractice?
Medicine is not a perfect field and doctors do not have all the answers. Not every mistake or error by a doctor is considered malpractice. When doctors and health care professionals provide reasonable care and meet standards but still make an error, they are not necessarily liable for any resulting injuries.
Sometimes the patient does not have a case even when the doctor does provide unreasonable care.
If a doctor failed to order diagnostic tests or failed to analyze the results of diagnostic tests and realizes months later that the patient has a last stage cancer and cannot recover, the doctor can be held liable for injuries, medical care, and pain and suffering of the patient relating to the delayed diagnosis.
If, however, the doctor made a mistake in diagnosis but the mistake did not significantly change the treatment the patient received or change the patient's recovery timeline, the doctor might not be held liable for the injury.
Should I File a Case?
While it is true that some plaintiffs in malpractice cases receive millions of dollars in compensation, this is not the norm and is reserved for truly egregious injuries and errors. Only 20% of all plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases receive monetary compensation for injuries, most cases end in no compensation.
Medical malpractice attorneys do not accept every case of malpractice. They only accept cases of serious injuries that can make the production and preparation of the case worth the end result.
If you are not sure if you have a case, talk to an experienced medical malpractice attorney.
Common Medical Malpractice Claims
Examples of common malpractice claims include:
Diagnosis errors are the most common malpractice claim and include delayed, failed, and misdiagnoses. Malpractice diagnosis errors only occur when the doctor deviated from the standard of care. If a doctor provided reasonable care to the patient and followed all clinical guidelines but made an error in diagnosis, the doctor cannot be held liable for injuries.
Surgical errors include both mistakes made during surgery and mistakes that occurred during post-operative care. A deviation from the standard of care in surgery includes leaving surgical tools in the patient, negligently nicking a vein or nerve, puncturing organs, and surrounding anatomy, and operating on the wrong body part.
Medical studies have found that close to 1.5 million Americans suffer a medication error every year. Medication errors cover everything from the initial prescription to the doctor's skill in monitoring the effects of the medication. The most common medication error occurs during dosage, either as a result of a doctor's mistake in creating or communicating a dosage amount or as the result of an administration error by a nurse or by medical equipment.
Childbirth injuries cover prenatal care for the mother through the actual birth of the child. Childbirth injuries include failure to diagnose serious pregnancy complications like preeclampsia or an ectopic pregnancy, failure to diagnose birth defects, and failure to diagnose diseases in the mother that could affect the fetus. These injuries also include negligence during the birthing process like failure to respond to fetal distress, failure to order a cesarean section, or failure to anticipate birth complications.
Anesthesia errors are some of the most harmful errors to patients. Minor errors by anesthesiologists can result in major consequences for patients like brain damage, throat injuries, or death. Anesthesiologists should become knowledgeable of the patients' medical history and any existing risk factors before administering medication. Anesthesiologists should also carefully monitor the patient during the procedure.
Limitations to Filing a Malpractice Case
Every state has a statute of limitations that dictates how long plaintiffs have to file a medical malpractice case. In Maryland, plaintiffs must file a case within five ears of the time the injury was committed, or within three years of the date the injury was discovered.
Check your state's own codes for the statue of limitation.
Call a Malpractice Attorney
If you or a loved one suffered a serious injury as a result of a doctor's negligence but are not sure if it constitutes medical malpractice, you need to speak with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. A qualified attorney can review your case and determine if the doctor provided unreasonable or less than standard care.
The attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian have a proven track record of success in protecting malpractice victims across Maryland. If you are concerned that your injury might be the result of malpractice, call our offices today at (800) 529-6162 to speak to an attorney and begin your case.