One of the first things that must be established in a medical malpractice case is that the doctor owed a duty of care to the patient. In this article, we’ll take a look at how the existence of that duty can be proved, and we’ll also examine other legal obligations of doctors in the context of a medical malpractice case.
Proving the Existence of a Doctor-Patient Relationship
In order to prove that a doctor owed a duty of care, the patient must first be able to demonstrate that a doctor-patient relationship existed at the time the alleged medical malpractice occurred.
The relationship between a doctor and a patient is one that is voluntary and usually entered into by agreement. Some things that can be used to support a finding that a doctor-patient relationship existed at the time of the alleged malpractice are evidence (i.e. documents and testimony) showing that:
- the patient chose to be treated by this particular doctor
- submitted to examinations for the purpose of treatment of a certain health problem or condition, and
- treatment by the doctor was ongoing.
It is a good idea for a patient to obtain a copy of medical records showing the complete course of treatment. This will go a long way toward proving the existence of the doctor-patient relationship.
A patient may not be able to support a claim that the doctor owed a duty to the patient if the doctor is able to show that the doctor-patient relationship was terminated prior to the date on which the alleged medical malpractice is said to have occurred.
A Doctor’s Duty Generally
In treating a patient, a doctor is required to use the degree and skill a reasonable and prudent doctor would use in the same or similar circumstances. This is the standard of care upon which most medical malpractice cases are based. In other words, a doctor whose conduct falls below this standard of care can be said to have committed medical malpractice (although additional elements must also be established).
A Doctor’s Duty to Warn and Advise
Doctors have the duty to communicate adequate information to patients, that is, to disclose a diagnosis or provide warnings to the patient in a timely manner. A doctor has a duty to inform a patient of the risks associated with drugs prescribed to the patient, and of the reasonable risks of any procedure or course of treatment.
Further, a doctor has a duty to disclose information regarding possible consequences of treatment that might have an impact on third parties. For example, if a medication is prescribed that causes drowsiness, a doctor has a duty to disclose that fact because it is foreseeable that others could be injured if the patient were to operate heavy machinery or a vehicle under the influence of the medication.
A Doctor’s Duty to Supervise
A doctor is typically permitted to delegate tasks to certain trained healthcare personnel, provided that other doctors would find it reasonable to do so under the circumstances (this traces back to the doctor’s general duty, discussed above). It is the doctor’s duty to supervise and be responsible for any medical acts that are delegated.
Duty as the First Element of a Medical Malpractice Claim
Demonstrating that the doctor owed a duty to the patient is the first step in a medical malpractice case. Once the existence of a duty is established, the failure to perform that duty -- and the resulting harm or injury to the plaintiff --are the next elements that must be established in a successful medical malpractice claim.