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Did your doctor's error constitute malpractice?

Most people realize that medicine is not an exact science and that doctors can, and do, make mistakes. "Routine" operations can wind up being anything but, patients can suffer serious reactions to anesthesia or new medications and treatments can fail to heal life-threatening conditions.

While all of the above scenarios are indeed unfortunate, they might not rise to the level of medical malpractice. In the past century, there have been amazing breakthroughs combating some of the world's worst diseases. But medicine is not magic.

What distinguishes mistakes from malpractice?

The underlying principle of good medical practices is the standard of care. Essentially, this means that in their treatment of patients, physicians must always meet or exceed professional standards of medical practices. They must demonstrate proficiency in their medical interactions with their patients. When they fall short of this standard of care, patients can get hurt by their doctors' negligence. This can open the door to potential allegations of medical malpractice.

Proving negligence can be challenging

To successfully litigate a medical malpractice claim, certain elements of alleged negligence must be present. They are:

  • A duty of care exists between the doctor and patient. This means, for one, that while you can't sue your internist brother-in-law for failing to correctly diagnose the cause of your rash at the family reunion last summer, the same might not hold true with the dermatologist you consulted professionally.
  • The patient suffered an injury or their condition worsened.
  • There was a deviation from the standard of care by the doctor.
  • There was a link between the standard of care deviation and the patient's subsequent worsened condition or injury. If the doctor erred but the patient succumbed to harm due to other, unrelated reasons, there is generally no malpractice proof.

You need expert witness testimony

Perhaps not unreasonably, many medical professionals loathe testifying against their colleagues even when they know or suspect that they committed medical malpractice. Presenting a winnable malpractice case generally requires the testimony of another qualified physician in the same practice area as the accused doctor. He or she must offer expert testimony to the fact that the defendant failed to meet the standard of care in a case.

The standard of care could vary

While some egregious acts of negligence stand alone as proof of medical malpractice, it's important to understand that the standard of care in a rural community hospital is different from that of a teaching hospital in a major metropolitan city. For instance, one would not expect the same diagnostic tools and medical expertise in a community hospital as one would at a Level One trauma center in New York City.

If you suspect that your physician committed malpractice, act swiftly to preserve your options.

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