From Psychiatrists to Psychologists: New Questions About Psychiatric Malpractice and Medication Errors

Medical malpractice does not always occur in hospital emergency rooms or surgical facilities. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health providers can also be liable for medical malpractice – this is often called psychiatric malpractice. As we discussed earlier this week, a pending Senate bill in Illinois has brought psychiatric malpractice, particularly medication errors , into sharper focus in this state.

The Power to Prescribe
The State Journal-Register recently ran a story about Illinois Senate Bill 2187, which would allow psychologists who are licensed in Illinois to prescribe medications. Psychologists, unlike psychiatrists, are not medical doctors. Psychologists currently have prescribing authority in just two states – New Mexico and Louisiana.

If the bill passes, psychologists who earn a master’s degree in psychopharmacology and undergo additional training will be able to lawfully prescribe medications to patients in Illinois. The bill’s proponents, including the American Psychological Association, argue that it will increase access to mental health care for people who live far from good psychiatric facilities or who do not want to see multiple health providers for the same mental condition. The bill’s opponents, including many psychiatrists, argue that psychologists lack the medical training needed to safely prescribe medicine to patients.

Prescriptions and Medical Malpractice
In Illinois, medical malpractice includes negligent medical care by any health care provider. This includes physicians (like a psychiatrist), hospitals, nurses, and dentists. It also includes psychologists. Medical malpractice by psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health care providers is often grouped under the term “psychiatric malpractice.”

Since psychiatric malpractice is a type of medical malpractice, claims against psychologists and psychiatrists for improper medical care must follow the same rules and procedures as traditional medical malpractice claims. This means that evidentiary rules, rules regarding expert witnesses, statutes of limitation, and other laws that apply to traditional medical malpractice claims also apply to psychiatric malpractice claims.

If psychologists obtain the power to prescribe medications, this opens the door for more malpractice claims against psychologists. With the power to prescribe medications comes great responsibility. Drug errors are possible when it comes to the decision or failure to place the patient on medication, the type of medication prescribed, the dosage prescribed, and ongoing monitoring of how medication affects a patient. Medication errors impact approximately 1.5 million Americans every year. If psychologists are added to the pool of providers who can prescribe medication, we can expect that number to rise.

In addition to prescribing errors, malpractice by mental health providers can take on other forms as well. Other medical errors can be intertwined with the use of medications, so they may also rise if psychologists get prescribing authority. According to an article from Psychiatric Times, here are a few common types of malpractice claims brought against mental health providers that can be affected by medication:

· Failure to obtain informed consent to therapy, given the patient’s mental state. The patient’s mental state could be affected by the use of medications.

· Inaccurate assessment and treatment (with medication or other forms of therapy) of suicide risk.

· Failure to protect third parties from a mental health patient’s violent tendencies, which might have been controlled with medication.

A national study found that 1 in 5 Americans suffer from a mental illness. With the number of people affected by mental illness, it seems like expanding prescribing authority to psychologists is just one attempt to make mental health treatment more available and accessible. However, it is important to explore the medical and legal effects of any such potential solution.

See Related Blog Posts:

VA Hospital Sued Following Suicide

“Talk Therapy,” Affairs, and Medical Malpractice

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