Negligent physical therapy, when it is administered by a licensed physical therapist, is one of several types of medical malpractice. Like doctors, dentists, nurses and optometrists, physical therapists are professional health care providers, and they are under a legal obligation to treat patients according to a certain standard of care. Violating that standard of care can amount to malpractice. In this article, we'll provide an overview of a physical therapist's potential liability for malpractice.
In most treatment scenarios, physical therapy is a tool that is prescribed by doctors to rehabilitate, strengthen or otherwise assist patients who have suffered an injury or illness that has affected their physical abilities and range of motion.
Normally administered by trained and licensed physical therapists, physical therapy is most definitely a branch of medicine. Like nurses, paramedics and other non-doctor health care providers, physical therapists manipulate the human body and are charged with a duty to provide services that comport with the standard of care.
The "standard of care" for a physical therapist is basically a legal concept that sets a yardstick of sorts, related to the type and level of care that is appropriate in a given treatment situation.
In a medical malpractice case, the "standard of care" looks at the situation in which the physical therapist treated the patient, and asks what kind of care a similarly-trained and competent physical therapist would have provided under those particular circumstances.
If the plaintiff (through his or her attorney and the testimony of a qualified medical expert witness) proves that the physical therapist provided treatment that fell short of the standard of care, that could lead to a finding of medical negligence on the part of the P.T.
Line any branch of medicine, physical therapy is not an exact science. The best practices and the best intentions for a course of therapy can often result in little no progress by the patients, and in the worst of cases can exacerbate existing conditions or cause new injuries.
But remember, just because there is a negative result stemming from physical therapy, that does not mean that a therapist has committed medical negligence. Sometimes, even in the best of situations, physical therapy does not help, and even though it is not as delicate or serious as something like surgery, there are known risks with any course of physical therapy treatment.
For physical therapy to amount to malpractice, the therapist must act in a negligent manner. As discussed above, the therapist has a legal duty to abide by the standard of care. If the therapist does not abide by the standard of care, they are in breach of their legal duty to the patient, and the first two elements of a negligence case are met.
Once duty and breach are established, the discussion turns to causation and damages. Did the therapist’s violation of the standard of care cause injury or harm to the claimant? If the answer is yes, then the third element of a negligence case is fulfilled. The fourth element is damages, which can be physical, mental or monetary. In physical therapy malpractice cases, damages often manifest as physical conditions that, but for the negligent physical therapy, would not have occurred.
It is important to note that prescribing physicians could, in theory, be held liable for negligent physical therapy. While the situation would be rare, it is possible for a doctor to improperly order a patient into physical therapy. A physical therapist and patient could go through with the therapy as ordered, and if the patient is injured because of the therapy the doctor could be found liable for improperly prescribing the therapy in the first place. For example, if a doctor failed to diagnose a patient's severe osteoporosis, and the patient ended up with a broken leg even though a physical therapy session was properly conducted, the doctor could face liability, and the P.T. could be off the legal hook.