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Conflicts of Interest When Treating Medical Patients

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What is a Conflict of Interest?

A doctor has a duty to treat a patient's medical condition to improve that patient's health.  A conflict of interest arises when a doctor recommends or gives the patient tests or treatments for some other reason, which is not professionally acceptable.  In almost all cases this other reason for giving treatment involves direct or indirect financial gain by the doctor.   

What Is the Difference Between a Conflict of Interest and Medical Malpractice?

Medical Malpractice is any departure from standard professional conduct by a medical professional. A conflict of interest can lead to malpractice, but malpractice doesn’t always include a conflict of interest.

What are a Doctor's Duties Regarding Conflicts of Interest?

A doctor duties regarding conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest stem from the patient's right to informed consent.  When receiving medical treatment a patient has a right to be informed of all the material risks and benefits associated with that treatment.  Only when fully informed of these material facts can a patient's decision to accept or decline medical treatment be voluntary. When a doctor has a conflict of interest regarding treating a patient, most states consider this to be a material fact of which the patient should be aware.  A doctor has a duty to inform his patient of any conflict of interest he may have. 

When Might a Conflict of Interest Arise?

A doctor may face a conflict of interest in a number of situations.  A very common situation is when the patient's treatment can be used as part of research the doctor is conducting.  Another common situation is when the doctor recommends a treatment that is offered by a company which the doctor has a financial stake in (e.g., owning share of a pharmaceutical company). 

An emerging conflict of interest in the medical field is when doctors treat their own family members. In some cases there is no controversy, but if the doctor has an emotional attachment to the patient, judgment may become compromised.

How Do I Prove a Conflict of Interest?

The most difficult thing about proving conflict of interest is that the patient is unaware that there was a conflict of interest and that conflict may have harmed the level of care the patient received. If you suspect conflict of interest, it is important to bring in a neutral party to conduct your own investigation.

If the doctor fulfills his professional obligation to disclose the conflict of interest or if the conflict is discovered, it is still necessary to prove that the conflict resulted in an injury to the patient. The conflict must be the cause of the patient’s injury. The most overt example would be if a doctor provided less effective medication to a patient because of an agreement with a pharmaceutical company.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Sue for Medical Malpractice?

There are many situations in which a conflict of interest can come up for a doctor.  If you have been mistreated or injured because as a result of your doctor's conflict of interest, you should speak to a medical malpractice lawyer.  A medical malpractice attorney can advise you about your rights and remedies under the law. 

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 03-18-2014 09:59 AM PDT

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