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What Does “Standard of Care” Mean in a Medical Malpractice Case?

Standard of care in the context of medical malpractice claims relates to the standard of patient care.  It does not relate to “care” as we customarily use the term.

The standard of care is a technical term.  It has nothing to do with emotional issues.

It is in fact a very high burden for injured patients to overcome.  On the flip side it is a fairly low burden for medical providers.  Many seemingly obvious cases of medical malpractice with tragic and even deadly consequences do not fall below the standard of care.

It Does Not Mean Caring and Compassionate

To begin, it might be best to explain what it does not mean.  It does not mean that the doctor cared or didn’t care about the patient.  This type of caring is completely irrelevant to a determination of medical negligence.

A doctor may not care in the least about the welfare of his or her patient.  Hopefully and presumably, this would be quite rare in the medical field.  But even where this is the case, it simply does not matter for a medical malpractice claim.  Likewise, a doctor may genuinely care about his or her patients.  This too is irrelevant.  Why this is important will be explained below.

Standard of Professionalism Related to the Safety of the Patient

The standard of care is a standard of professionalism, not a measure of caring, compassion or kindness.  It relates to well-established procedures for the treatment of patients.  It relates to the rules that doctors and other medical providers must follow to insure the safety of patients.

It means the standard of medical care or medical services.  It is used in relation to all medical providers from general practitioners (primary care doctors) to the most skilled and highly trained specialists.

Medical Malpractice Requires Treatment Below the Standard of Care in the Community

In order to have a medical malpractice claim, the injured patient must show that the doctor’s treatment fell below the standard of care in the community.  “In the community” raises an entirely different set of questions related to the necessary expert testimony that will be required, which will not be addressed here.  Suffice it to say that it relates to the type of practitioner, the degree of specialization required, and to a lessor degree than in the past, the locality of the provider.

Treatment that “falls below the standard of care” means that the doctor violated rules related to treatment of the particular illness.  It means that the doctor failed to follow well established guidelines and procedures for the treatment of a particular illness.

Bad Outcomes Do Not Equate to Medical Negligence

Having said all that, keep in mind that just because there was a bad outcome or things did not work out as you would have wished does not mean the doctor was negligent.  If the doctor followed the rules and a bad outcome ensues, then there is no negligence upon which to base a claim.

In this case, the doctor’s care in meeting all the rules and procedures for treatment would meet the standard of care.  This is all that is required or reasonably should be required of a doctor.

Mistakes Do Not Necessarily Mean Medical Malpractice

As with bad outcomes, mistakes are predictable in medical care.  This is particularly so in surgery.  There are many mistakes that are considered to be known complications or expected risks of surgery.

Some of these at first glance seem outrageous.  Some result in horrible injuries or death.  However, the standard for a medical malpractice case remains that the medical care fell below the “standard of care”.  In other words, mistakes and bad outcomes occur.  Some of these may seem to most, including attorneys, to be inexcusable and blatant malpractice.  Unfortunately, medical experts upon review will often see it quite differently.

As you will see, the numbers are staggering and death and injury by preventable medical error might well be characterized as an epidemic.  It is extremely important to have the case reviewed by the appropriate medical expert to figure out what happened and if it amounted to medical malpractice.

Medical Negligence and Medical Errors are Far Too Common

Medical negligence occurs in ways too numerous to list.  However, suffice it to say that estimates suggest deaths by preventable medical error as high as 440,000 per year,  1 in 3 hospital patients suffer a medical mistake, and countless others are injured or die as a result of medical errors outside of hospitals in diagnostic settings.

The term is often misunderstood by injured patients.  It is also misunderstood by juries.  This brings us to the question posed above which is why the confusion of the term matters to injured patients.

We have stated this many times throughout our website and blogs, but it bears repeating:  Medical malpractice cases are very difficult and the odds are stacked in favor of the doctors no matter what you may have heard in the press.  It is very hard to reconcile with the numbers above related to the virtual epidemic of medical errors.

We All Trust and Respect Our Doctors

One and perhaps the chief explanation for the disconnect is the sympathy that juries have for doctors.  Part of this sympathy stems from the historical respect and admiration our society has for doctors.  Part stems from the fact that we all want to believe that we can trust our doctors with our lives.

These are good reasons, but much of it stems from all the misleading and dishonest characterizations of injured patients and their lawyers with regards to the great myth of a crisis of frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits against innocent and defenseless doctors (i.e. their insurance companies).

Whatever the root of the sympathy for doctors, it is undeniable that medical malpractice lawsuits have a very low success rate.  Three of four verdicts are in favor of doctors.  The great majority of claims result in no payment to the injured patient or his or her surviving family members.

Some of this might in fact be due to an absence of negligence.  However, when viewing the numbers on preventable medical errors and the fact that very few claims are brought up at all, it is more likely that sympathy plays into the verdicts.

Sympathy for the “Caring” Doctor

The exaggerated sympathy toward doctors in the face of very real and significant medical negligence perhaps also relates to a misunderstanding of the “standard of care.”  The great majority of patients do not bring claims because they believe the doctor did his or best.  Many jurors fall into the same trap with bias toward the doctor who was caring, compassionate and kind, and did his best.

This is where the disconnect comes in.  It does not matter if he did his best.  What matters is that he followed the rules and procedures established for the safety and care of patients.  If he did his best yet violated these rules, then he was negligent.  If he is incapable of meeting the rules and procedures for the treatment of patients, then his best is not good enough.