About 225,000 people die annually because of medical mistakes and mishaps, and many more sustain non-fatal harm. As a result, researchers believe medical malpractice may rank among the most common causes of death and unintentional injury and illness in the United States.
Patients harmed by medical malpractice often have a legal right to receive compensation from their providers and others. But only a small minority of medical malpractice victims ever take legal action seeking payment for what happened to them. Often, that's because they do not realize they have the option of taking legal action.
Below, we define and explain the basics of medical malpractice. If you or a loved one suffered injuries because of a medical error, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney to discuss your options.
What Is Medical Malpractice?
Doctors, hospitals, and other medical providers must deliver a minimum standard of care to all patients. Medical malpractice (sometimes called medical negligence) occurs when a healthcare provider or medical professional omits appropriate medical action, fails to provide appropriate treatment, or provides a substandard diagnosis or treatment likely to cause injury, harm, or death to a patient.
Defining Characteristics of a Medical Malpractice Case
Every medical malpractice case involves a patient who suffered a negative health outcome. But not everyone with a negative health outcome is a victim of medical malpractice. Lawyers, doctors, insurers, and courts recognize medical malpractice by its distinct characteristics, which we discuss below.
1. A Violation of the Medical Standard of Care
The law requires virtually all healthcare providers to adhere to a strict standard of care when treating patients. Generally, the standard of care is the minimum level of medical care and treatment a qualified medical professional must provide in a given circumstance.
The standard of care can vary based on (among other factors) a provider's location, training, resources, and experience, the setting of care, and the nature and severity of a patient's health condition. For example, the standard of care for treating a suspected heart attack may differ for a rural family practice doctor than for a cardiac surgeon at a city's leading research hospital.
Medical malpractice requires a medical provider to violate the standard of care for a specific patient. A violation can take many varied forms, which we discuss below. But to win a medical malpractice case, a lawyer must be able to prove that a violation happened.
2. Injury or Harm Caused by the Violation
For a medical malpractice case to exist, a violation of the standard of care must have injured or harmed the patient. For the most part, that harm must be something specifically identifiable—for example, a physical injury, a worsening health condition, or an untimely death—to form the basis of a medical malpractice claim. It is usually not enough for a patient to feel wronged or upset by substandard care. The violation must cause tangible harm.
To have a medical malpractice case, the patient must have suffered damages from the harm done by the medical provider. Damages are a legal concept encompassing all negative consequences of a medical professional's wrongful decisions and actions.
They include physical, emotional, and financial harm, such as:
- Physical pain
- Mental health challenges
- Medical and other expenses
- Income loss
- Negative life and relationship consequences
No one expects you to figure out if you have a medical malpractice case on your own. The most reliable and accurate way to determine if you have a potential malpractice claim is to contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer for a free, confidential consultation.
Examples of Medical Malpractice
As we mentioned above, the medical mistakes and mishaps at the root of a malpractice case can take many forms. Here are some examples of how an act of medical malpractice can harm a patient and trigger the right to file a claim for damages.
Diagnostic Errors (Misdiagnosis, Delayed Diagnosis, and Failure to Diagnose)
A medical professional must diagnose patients' medical conditions accurately. Doctors and other healthcare workers must take numerous data points—a patient's complaints, observable physical and mental condition, diagnostic test results, and medical history—into account when identifying and treating an ailment. Mistakes and oversights committed during that process can lead to harmful health outcomes.
Three general categories of diagnostic errors commonly appear in medical malpractice cases:
- Misdiagnosis occurs when a doctor incorrectly identifies a patient's medical problem or condition, leading to unnecessary treatments and worsening of the real (undiagnosed) health condition.
- Delayed diagnosis happens when it takes a medical professional an unreasonably long time to recognize and diagnose the signs and symptoms of a condition or illness, allowing it to worsen.
- Failure to diagnose, as the name suggests, involves a medical provider's omission of a diagnosis entirely, resulting in adverse health impacts.
Researchers estimate that diagnostic errors contribute to 40,000 to 80,000 deaths in U.S. hospitals annually. Cancers, infections, and vascular events account for a large proportion of the conditions subject to diagnostic errors.
Errors and Mishaps During Surgery
Many medical malpractice claims involve surgical errors and other preventable events during surgery, such as:
- Operating on the wrong patient
- Operating on the wrong body part
- Leaving surgical equipment inside a patient
- Anesthesia error (too much or too little)
- Unnecessary trauma to nerves, organs, or blood vessels.
Causes of surgical errors that can support a medical malpractice claim include:
- Insufficient preoperative planning
- Incompetence and carelessness
- Failure to follow proper surgical processes
- Operating while fatigued
- Poor communication among members of the surgical team
- Operating while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
Importantly, signing a consent form before surgery does not prevent patients or their loved ones from pursuing medical malpractice claims.
Negligent Treatment or Failure to Treat
Medical malpractice claims can also arise when a doctor or medical worker unreasonably treats or fails to provide appropriate care for a diagnosed condition, resulting in harm to a patient.
This form of malpractice can include:
- Failure to recommend or schedule follow-up care;
- Failure to provide a referral to a specialist;
- Failure to perform, analyze, or review diagnostic tests;
- Failure to screen for adverse drug interactions before writing a prescription;
- Failure to collect, review, or accurately transcribe health history information.
Many of these instances happen when a healthcare provider prioritizes profits over the patient's safety, such as by understaffing a medical office or failing to train employees.
Obstetricians, gynecologists, and other medical providers involved in the childbirth process can cause permanent harm to newborns and mothers by negligently failing to meet the required standard of care in childbirth. In certain scenarios, a birth injury can lead to an infant requiring lifelong care. In others, malpractice can lead to the death of a mother or child.
Malpractice during childbirth can take many forms, including:
- Anesthesia errors
- Failing to monitor the mother and baby during labor
- Failing to perform a C-section during emergencies
- Performing an unnecessary C-section
- Incorrectly using assistive devices, resulting in brachial plexus or cerebral palsy injuries.
- Failing to diagnose serious complications for the mother or baby
- Provision of inadequate prenatal care.
Contact a Medical Malpractice Lawyer Today
It's not always easy to know whether you have suffered harm because of medical malpractice. But an experienced medical malpractice lawyer can evaluate your case, review your records, and advise you about your legal rights.
If you believe you may have suffered harm because of a medical provider's mistakes or substandard care, contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer today for a free case consultation.