Medical Negligence Explained

An overview of the legal theory on which most medical malpractice cases hinge.


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The term "medical negligence" is often confused with "medical malpractice," when in fact negligence is better thought of as one aspect of a meritorious medical malpractice claim.

Here is one definition of “medical negligence”: an act or omission (failure to act) by a medical professional that deviates from the accepted medical standard of care.

When it comes to medical malpractice law, medical negligence is usually the legal concept upon which the case hinges, from a "legal fault" perspective. Negligence on its own does not merit a medical malpractice claim, but when the negligence is the legal cause of injury to a patient, there may be a good case for medical malpractice. Read on to learn more. (For more detailed information about medical malpractice laws in your state, see Medical Malpractice Statutes and click your state link.)

Negligence in General

Negligence is a common legal theory that comes into play when assessing who is at fault in a tort case. It's best to think of a tort case as civil injury case. A common example of a tort case, and a good way to explain how negligence works, is to think of a driver getting into an accident on the road. In a car accident, it is usually established that one person caused the accident -- by breaching their legal duty to obey traffic laws and drive responsibly under the circumstances -- and that person is responsible for all damages suffered by other parties involved in the crash.

For example, if a driver fails to stop at a red light, then that driver is said to be negligent in the eyes of the law (they’ve also violated a traffic law). If the failure to stop at the red light causes an accident, then the negligent driver is responsible (usually through an insurer) to pay for any damage caused to other drivers, passengers, or pedestrians, as a result of running the red light.

Medical Negligence Explained

In the last section, we looked at negligence in terms of a driver’s legal duty (owed to other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians) to operate a vehicle with reasonable care under the circumstances. Now we'll look at negligence in the context of medical care.  

Similar to drivers, doctors and other medical professionals also have a duty to their patients, to provide treatment that is in line with the “medical standard of care,” which is usually defined as the level and type of care that a reasonably competent and skilled health care professional, with a similar background and in the same medical community, would have provided under the circumstances that led to the alleged malpractice.      

So, medical negligence occurs when a doctor, dentist, nurse, surgeon or any other medical professional performs their job in a way that deviates from this accepted medical standard of care. In keeping with our car accident analogy, if a doctor provides treatment that is sub-standard in terms of accepted medical norms under the circumstances, then that doctor has failed to perform his or her duty, and is said to be negligent.

Medical Negligence Does Not Equal Injury. It’s important to note that medical negligence does not always result in injury to the patient. When a driver runs a red light and no accident occurs, the driver is still negligent, even though no one got hurt. Similarly, a doctor or other health care professional might deviate from the appropriate medical standard of care in treating a patient, but if the patient is not harmed and their health is not impacted, that negligence won’t lead to a medical malpractice case.

How Medical Negligence Becomes Medical Malpractice

In short, medical negligence becomes medical malpractice when the doctor’s negligent treatment causes undue injury to the patient -- makes the patient’s condition worse, causes unreasonable and unexpected complications, or necessitates additional medical treatment, to name just a few examples of what’s considered “injury” in a malpractice case.

In other words, the addition of two additional elements -- legal causation and damages -- are necessary before medical negligence will give rise to a viable medical malpractice lawsuit. If the doctor’s medical negligence was not a foreseeable result of the patient’s harm (causation), or if the doctor’s medical negligence actually had no detrimental effect on the patient’s condition (damages), a medical malpractice claim will fall short. Learn more about When It’s Malpractice, and When It Isn’t.

by: , J.D.

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