Physician Malpractice: What Constitutes Negligence?


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Physician malpractice is not dependent on a poor result, and a poor result does not always constitute negligence. The practice of medicine is an inexact art, and there are no guarantees that any course of treatment. But physicians do make mistakes, and some of those mistakes rise to the level of medical malpractice. So what, exactly, constitutes negligence in a physician malpractice case?

Diagnostic Errors

If your physician fails to diagnose a disease or condition, and the standard of care demands that the doctor should have made the diagnosis, your physician was negligent and likely committed malpractice. These types of cases are very common, but often very difficult to pursue. The key is the standard of care that is in play.

Keep in mind, the standard of care differs from region to region and takes your doctor’s level of education and experience into account. As a result, a rural internist with a small private practice is not held to the same standard of care as a board-certified infectious disease specialist practicing in a cutting edge urban hospital. The well of knowledge and experience from which each doctor is drawing is vastly different.

While both doctors in the above example should be able to diagnose the flu or pneumonia with relative ease, it would be more difficult to argue that the rural doctor was negligent for missing a diagnosis of some type of exotic disease usually only seen in people from foreign countries. On the other hand, the big city infectious disease expert would likely be negligent in not making the same diagnosis. Learn more about misdiagnosis and malpractice.

Errors in Treatment

Errors in treatment go hand-in-hand with diagnostic errors. If your physician negligently misdiagnoses your condition, it is likely that the treatment prescribed will also be improper. For example, if you were misdiagnosed with cancer, any prescribed chemo or radiation therapy could have a detrimental effect on your health. This error in treatment -- which is dependent upon your physician’s negligent diagnosis -- also constitutes physician negligence and malpractice.

Surgical Error

Another common form of physician negligence is surgical error. Like all types of medical malpractice, surgical error is dependent upon the standard of care. But unlike in diagnostic error cases, common surgical errors are often very easy to identify. Amputating the wrong leg, leaving surgical instruments inside a patient’s body, performing the wrong procedure, or performing a procedure without informed consent -- these types of errors constitute physician negligence and are often very east to spot. If your surgeon breached the standard of care and caused you harm, your surgeon was likely negligent.

Pharmaceutical Error

Similar to the errors in treatment discussed above, pharmaceutical errors can constitute physician negligence if the errors are in violation of the standard of care. If you’ve watched television long enough to reach a commercial break, you’ve likely seen commercials for prescription drugs that end with a litany of potentially dangerous side effects. When prescribed and used as directed, the benefits of use are thought to outweigh the potential dangers. But if your physician prescribes an inappropriate drug to treat your condition -- whether misdiagnosed or diagnosed correctly -- he or she has violated the standard of care and committed an act of physician negligence.

There are any number of scenarios under which a physician can be negligent. Keep in mind that in the examples above -- and in every other case -- it is incumbent upon you to prove that your physician breached his duty to practice according to the standard of care, and that breach caused you harm.

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