What is a Standard of Care in Medical Malpractice Claims?

Doctors, hospitals, and medical providers in general all owe a duty to their patients which must meet a minimum standard of care. A standard of care is the reasonable degree of prudence exercised by a medical provider in tending to a patient. In the medical world, such standards may be measured against treatment and care standards across the medical industry in a particular state or jurisdiction. There may also be published guides to care and treatment that doctor or hospitals commit to abide by.

This standard of care also includes a medical provider’s duty to inform patients of particular risks with a medication or a certain procedure, for example. A failure to disclose the risk could result in malpractice liability if the patient were to get hurt and claims he or she would not have opted for a particular course of treatment if they were aware of the risks. In general, plaintiffs must demonstrate that a standard of care was breached as an element to their overall malpractice claim.

A Case Study
The relatively recent case of Hunter v. Amin provides a distinct example of a medical provider’s standard of care and how the plaintiff believed the provider breached his duty by failing to meet that standard. In Hunter, an inmate, Stanley Bell, who suffered from bipolar disorder was taking anti-depressants and an antihistamine for his anxiety. The defendant doctor was a psychiatrist employed by the jail who took on Bell as a patient. When Bell refused to go on with a particular session until a jail officer left the room, the defendant psychiatrist threatened to withhold his medications unless he participated in the session with the officer present. Bell also refused to sign a waiver requested by the psychiatrist which would release him from any liability for Bell’s refusal to participate in the psychiatry session, but Bell refused to do that as well. Within two days, without his medications, Bell committed suicide.

Bell’s sister sued the psychiatrist for malpractice, alleging he failed to meet the standard of care in treating her brother when he withheld the medications. The trial court found that Bell’s complete refusal to participate in the session effectively excused the psychiatrist from any duty of care since the inmate, as the patient, refused to accept any treatment in the form of his weekly session. The psychiatrist was therefore no longer under any duty of care, and a malpractice suit could not move forward.

An appeals court, however, found that there was in fact a remaining duty between the psychiatrist and Bell during that session. The court found stated there was no evidence to say that engaging in the weekly session was a prerequisite for receiving medications that were previously prescribed to Bell, and that the psychiatrist had previously prescribed medications to him without an actual exam or session. Therefore, the psychiatrist’s discontinuing of the antidepressant medication was in fact a breach of the duty of competent care that did still exist between the doctor and patient. The case was remanded back to the lower court for trial.

The appeals court’s decision stands as an interesting example of how complicated it can be to determine when a duty of care attaches between a medical provider and patient. In bringing forth a malpractice suit, this can often be the most challenging element to prove.

See Other Blog Posts:

New Malpractice Suit Dubbed “Death by Forceps”

Failure to Diagnose: Parents of Young Doctor File Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

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