It takes many years of study and preparation to become a doctor. In addition to four years of undergraduate pre-medicine studies and four years of medical school, it may take another three to seven years (residencies, specializations) before a doctor starts his or her practice. Additionally, doctors must take continuing education courses throughout their tenure.
With all that education and training, a patient should feel safe going to a doctor, right? Well, not necessarily. More than 250,000 deaths each year are caused by medical errors. In fact, medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the US, preceded only by heart disease and cancer.
The Medical Professional’s Duty and the Standard of Care
Not only doctors, but all health care professionals have a duty to provide health care that falls within what is known as the “standard of care.” California’s civil jury instructions define the standard of care as the “level of skill, knowledge and care in diagnosis and treatment that other reasonably careful practitioners would use in the same or similar circumstances.”
How is the standard of care determined? In a medical malpractice lawsuit, the injured party alleges that the medical professional was negligent in their duty, and that the medical professional’s negligence caused harm to the patient. Medical malpractice cases are based on tort law, also known as negligence law. In order for negligence to be proven, there are certain elements that must exist.
Proving Negligence and the Standard of Care
The first is that the doctor (or other medical professional) owed a duty to the patient. For example, an oncologist owes a duty to properly examine and treat the patient for cancer. This may typically include a thorough medical background check, conducting appropriate diagnostic blood and imaging tests, following up on the results, and so on.
The second is that the duty was breached, or violated. In the example above, if the doctor failed to conduct the type of medical background checks or appropriate diagnostic tests that a reasonable and prudent oncologist would normally conduct under the same or similar circumstances, that duty was breached.
The third is that the breach of duty was the proximate cause of harm to the patient. This is known as causation. So, if the oncologist didn’t conduct the type of tests that should have been conducted, and the tests would have revealed a cancerous condition that could have been treated, the negligence harmed the patient. There is a proximate cause between the breach, the harm and the patient's injuries. Causation exists.
The fourth element is that damage, or harm, must occur. If the patient wasn’t harmed, despite the fact that the doctor didn’t conduct the proper medical tests, there is not an actionable medical malpractice case. However, if the patient developed cancer that could have and should have been revealed in appropriate tests, and the oncologist failed to conduct those routine tests, and illness, injury, harm or even death occurred, clearly it can be asserted that the medical standard of care was violated, and that the doctor was negligent. There would appear to be a strong case of medical malpractice.
Based on the facts in the example above, the oncologist clearly was negligent in his or her duties. There was a breach of the professional standard of care. The doctor did not provide the level of skill, knowledge or care that a similarly trained and credentialed oncologist in similar circumstances would have provided. The standard of care applies to all doctors and all health care professionals.
Michels & Lew, Los Angeles Medical Malpractice and Personal Injury Law Firm
If you experienced harm as a result of the negligence of a doctor or other health care professional, it is advisable to discuss your case with experienced and qualified legal and medical professionals. Michels and Lew represents clients who were harmed by medical negligence, including injured victims and the families of deceased victims.