In general, medical standards establish the minimum level of expertise required to perform a medical professional’s job safely and efficiently. For instance, medical standards may instruct all medical professionals to obtain a medical license, follow certain protocols when faced with a specific injury, and adhere to strict policies when doing their jobs.

Medical standards also require that medical professionals provide a certain level of care to all patients. Thus, if a medical standards of care violation results while managing a patient’s health, then that patient may be able to recover damages from the medical professional if the violation causes them harm.

What Is the Standard of Care for Medical Providers?

The standard of care for medical providers can generally be defined as the level of care that a reasonably competent and skilled medical professional, who has a similar background to and practices in the same medical community, would have provided to a patient under the same set of circumstances.

The above definition is essentially what is required of all medical providers across the nation. However, this definition can vary by jurisdiction and will sometimes change depending on the type of medical professional as well as local rules. 

For example, a local rule may state that a medical professional must possess the reasonable level of skill and knowledge akin to that of other surgeons and physicians who practice medicine in the jurisdiction.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, there are also some medical standard of care guidelines that medical professionals must generally follow. These include:

  • Maintaining consistency and uniformity when performing medical evaluations on all patients;
  • Conforming with the rules provided in the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”);
  • Promising not to aggravate, accelerate, and/or worsen any patient’s existing or preexisting medical conditions; and
  • Obtaining the necessary qualifications to become a licensed medical professional. 

How Can a Violation of Medical Standard Be Proved?

Ultimately, a plaintiff will need to provide testimony of a qualified expert medical witness (usually a medical professional within the same community) in order to prove that a medical standard has been violated. This expert will have to testify to how the standard of care deviated from that which is considered standard conduct and how the medical professional’s deviation caused the plaintiff to suffer harm. 

In cases where a specialist violated medical standards, the plaintiff will need to obtain expert testimony from a medical professional who practices within the same field of medicine. For instance, if the plaintiff was injured by a surgeon, then an expert witness who is a surgeon will need to testify that the surgeon in violation provided substandard treatment.  

Many malpractice lawsuits arise when there is a violation of standards of patient care. Such lawsuits are based on a claim of negligence. Basically, if a medical professional behaves in a way that is negligent and falls below the elevated duty of care required for all patients, then ends up injuring a patient, that patient may sue them to recover damages for malpractice. 

A patient can prove medical malpractice by showing the following elements:

  • That a medical professional had a duty to act reasonably and in compliance with the medical standard of care in managing the patient’s health (e.g., treating, diagnosing, etc.);
  • The medical professional breached their duty by failing to meet this standard because they acted negligently in overseeing some aspect of the patient’s health;
  • Due to their negligent behavior, the medical professional was both the actual and proximate cause of the patient’s injury; and 
  • The patient can prove that their injury caused them to suffer quantifiable damages. 

What Are Some Examples of Violations of Medical Standards?

Some common examples of violations of medical standards include:

  • Failing to diagnose or misdiagnosing a serious medical condition;
  • Disregarding instructions from an advisor or superior (e.g., an experienced physician directing a medical intern or nurse to perform certain tasks);
  • Performing surgery on the wrong patient or on the wrong body part; 
  • Violating a patient’s expectation of privacy (e.g., HIPAA violations);
  • Failing to exercise the proper level of care prior to, during, and after serious medical procedures (e.g., not receiving informed consent, leaving medical tools inside a patient’s body, releasing a patient too early, etc.); and 
  • Entering improper data onto a patient’s medical chart or record. 

It should also be noted that professionals who have more experience or possess a greater skill set can be held to a higher degree of care than the average medical professional. As such, what may qualify as a violation of medical standards for some medical professionals, may not count as a violation for others if they are held to a lower standard.

What Are Remedies for Violations of Medical Standards?

It is important to keep in mind that a plaintiff may only recover remedies and damages for violations of medical standards if they suffered actual injuries as a result of the violation. Some legal remedies and damages that an injured patient may be able to recover include:

  • Economic or “special” damages: Economic damages are those that can be calculated based on the patient’s injury. For example, medical bills, lost wages, loss of earning capacity, and other out-of-pocket expenses, are all kinds of costs that the plaintiff may be reimbursed for under economic or special damages.
  • Non-economic or “general” damages: These types of damages are specific to a patient and their reactions to an injury, such as emotional distress, pain and suffering, loss of quality of life, reputational damages, and so on. 
  • Punitive damages: Punitive damages are rarely awarded, and if they are, only a handful of states permit punitive damage awards when they relate to these types of lawsuits. In states that do recognize them, there are often restrictions on the amount that a plaintiff can receive. 
  • Other remedies: Other remedies that the court may issue include suspending or revoking a medical professional’s medical license, shutting down a medical facility, ordering them to update or amend their policies, and inputting new health, safety, and/or privacy measures in place. 

Are There Any Defenses for Violation of Medical Standards?

Some defenses that might potentially be raised against a claim for violation of medical standards include:

  • Lack of proof: If the plaintiff-patient fails to prove the necessary elements, then the defendant-medical professional may argue that they did not satisfy the requirements to hold them liable for their injuries.
  • “Good Samaritan” laws: Some states have enacted “Good Samaritan” laws, which basically extend protections to medical professionals who must provide quick medical care in emergency situations. For instance, if an unconscious patient required immediate surgery that did not give a doctor time to contact their relatives for informed consent or else they would lose the patient. 
  • No violation: If the medical professional performed their duties in a way that fell in line with similar medical professionals both in their field and where they practice, then this may act as a defense.  
  • Statute of limitations: Every state has a statute of limitation, which is a law that provides how long a person has to file a lawsuit for a particular claim. If it has expired, then it will bar the plaintiff from bringing a lawsuit. Note that the defendant does have to actually raise this as a defense in order to exercise it. Not raising it in a timely fashion can work against the defendant. 
  • Contributory and Modified Comparative Negligence: If a case is brought in a jurisdiction that recognizes contributory negligence theory and the defendant can prove that the plaintiff contributed to their injuries, then this will bar the plaintiff from recovering any damages. 
    • On the other hand, if the case is brought in a state that follows modified comparative negligence theory, a plaintiff will only be barred from recovering if they are 51% or greater at fault for their injuries. If their percentage of fault falls below 51%, it can still act as a defense, but their damages will only be reduced and not completely barred.  

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With a Medical Malpractice Claim?

Medical malpractice laws and standards often vary from state to state. This can make it difficult to apply them and to predict the outcomes of medical malpractice lawsuits. Thus, if you believe you have a claim for medical malpractice, then you should contact a local personal injury lawyer for further legal advice. 

An experienced personal injury lawyer will be familiar with the proper standard of care in your jurisdiction, can determine whether you have a viable medical malpractice claim, and if so, can you help file and prepare your case. Additionally, your lawyer will also be able to provide representation both in court and during negotiations for a settlement.