Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) is a condition involving the formation of a blood clot in the deep veins of the legs or pelvis. After formation, the clot can restrict blood flow in the region, causing pain and swelling (usually in the legs). Portions of the clot can also break off from the original formation and travel through the body. In some cases, the mobile portion of the clot (or embolus) lodges in a lung, causing a pulmonary embolism, which causes more than 50,000 deaths per year in the United States.
DVT most commonly occurs during or after surgery or other prolonged inactivity (such as sitting for six or more hours on a plane). Other factors that increase the risk of DVT include:
- a history of DVT
- increased age
- some cancers, and
- kidney problems.
Because of the close relationship between surgery and DVT, a doctor will generally evaluate each patient’s risk of developing DVT prior to surgery by determining the applicability of each of the risk factors listed above.
When a doctor determines that a patient has a high risk of DVT, the doctor will often prescribe blood thinners (or anticoagulants). Failure by a doctor to prescribe blood thinners for a surgical patient with a high risk of DVT is just one of the ways that development of DVT may be linked to medical malpractice.
In order to win a medical malpractice lawsuit, a patient must prove two basic elements:
- medical negligence on the part of a doctor or other health care provider, and
- harm to the patient that was caused by the negligence.
In the sections below, we'll explore both of these elements in the context of a medical malpractice case involving DVT.
DVT is not always the result of negligence. A doctor can do everything right, and a patient may still develop DVT.
A patient must prove two things to demonstrate medical negligence:
- the appropriate standard of care under the treatment circumstances, and
- the breach of the standard of care (what the defendant doctor actually did or failed to do).
Standard of Care. This is a legal term that refers to the level of care that a similarly-trained and skilled doctor would have demonstrated under similar circumstances. The medical standard of care varies by case. In many DVT cases, the standard of care might require a doctor to:
- prescribe blood thinners
- direct the patient to walk around as quickly as possible after surgery
- avoid the use of a tourniquet
- use a compression sleeve, or
- test for DVT.
In the vast majority of cases, proving the standard of care requires testimony from an expert medical witness. The patient (usually through an attorney) consults a DVT expert who offers an opinion as to the quality of care that should have been provided under the circumstances.
Breach of the Standard of Care. The next step is to prove that the defendant doctor breached the standard of care. Here again, an expert would outline what actually happened in the case (contrasted with what should have happened) to show how the doctor's conduct came up short. (Learn more about how an expert witness proves malpractice.)
Harm Caused by the Doctor's Negligence
In order to win a medical malpractice lawsuit, the patient must prove that the doctor’s negligence caused foreseeable harm to the patient. This harm can take many forms, including:
- pain and suffering
- cost of medical bills
- loss of earning capacity, and
- loss of the ability to enjoy life’s pleasures in the same way as prior to the injury.
The critical issue is whether the negligence actually caused the harm. It is insufficient to show that a patient suffered harm after a mistake was made.
For example, imagine the standard of care required a doctor to test for DVT shortly after a surgery because the patient’s leg was swollen, but the doctor failed to perform the test. Shortly thereafter, the patient suffered a pulmonary embolism and died. Would the doctor be liable for medical malpractice?
The doctor would only be liable if the pulmonary embolism or the resulting damage was preventable. The doctor might be able to argue that even if a test for DVT had been conducted when the swelling was observed, it would have been too late to prevent the pulmonary embolism. So, even though the doctor was negligent, the doctor might not be liable because the negligence may not have actually caused the harm. This kind of legal question might form the crux of a medical malpractice case over DVT, and the issue would likely be debated by qualified experts on both sides of the case. Learn more about Proving Medical Malpractice.