What meaning does 'standard of care' have in malpractice claims?

Not every medical mistake, even a missed diagnosis, is actually medical malpractice.

To demonstrate malpractice, one of the things that the plaintiff has to show is that the physician failed to live up to the standard of care that's considered ordinary or reasonable for the situation.

What exactly does this mean?

It means, generally speaking, looking at whether or not the defendant physician took the same steps (ordered the same diagnostic procedures, prescribed the same treatment, ordered the same surgery and so on) that another physician in his or her place would have done.

It's important to realize that location plays a factor in medical standards of care. A primary care physician in a rural Louisiana town with only minimal access to diagnostic tools who fails to find a hidden heart condition is going to be held to one standard of care. A cardiologist at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, who has not only different training but diagnostic tools at his or her fingertips, is going to be held to another.

When evaluating whether or not a doctor met (or failed to meet) the necessary standard of care, courts look at several other factors as well:

  1. Did the physician use diagnostic methods or treatment that's been previously tested?
  2. Have the methods been medically accepted through peer reviews?
  3. Is there a range of error that's known (if a diagnostic test is at issue)?
  4. Did the physician account for that (by doing additional testing)?

It's often necessary to bring in experts in the medical field concerned in order to testify to the jury about these facts -- and it isn't unusual for each side to have their own experts. That leaves it up to the jury to decide, ultimately, if a doctor's actions were reasonable and the standard of care was (or wasn't) met.

If the appropriate standard of care was met, then no medical malpractice happened -- even if the physician made a mistake.

On the other hand, if the physician skipped over some steps, relied on his or her personal judgment without bothering to run a few tests or ignored discrepancies in the medical reports that should have been investigated, it's likely that the necessary standard of care wasn't met -- which means malpractice occurred.

Source: Huffington Post, "The Standard of Care," Darryl S. Welman, M.D., J.D. Contributor, Dec. 29, 2017

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