When Does Medical Error Become Medical Malpractice?

Healthcare continues to be a topic of great debate in the United States, with our system drawing both praise and criticism from politicians and citizens, alike. Many complain about a lack of access, affordability, and uneven outcomes. Others praise the quality of care and compassion of practitioners. But regardless of one’s opinion in the political debate, statistics demonstrate that medical errors occur with sufficient frequency to concern us all. After all, some researchers have concluded that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in between 210,000 and 400,000 preventable deaths every year. While it is true that some “medical errors” do not rise to the level of malpractice, and while we are quite certain that most health-care workers are compassionate, hard-working, well-meaning providers, it is nevertheless alarming to consider these statistics and the potential for harm to ourselves and our loved ones.

Considering the Terminology of “Medical Error” and “Medical Malpractice”

We all know that the complex terminology in both the medical and legal fields can be confusing. This can be especially true when terms are used interchangeably and when there is not a universally accepted definition of a term. Many articles and papers refer to “medical error” without fully defining the term. The United States National Library of Medicine defines “medical errors,” in part, as “errors or mistakes committed by health professionals which result in harm to the patient.” The definition further states that a “medical error” results from a mistake or accident, while “medical malpractice” results from negligence or intent. However, from a legal standpoint this definition is lacking because a mistake or accident may indeed constitute medical malpractice. The real question is whether the action or omission constituting the “medical error” violates the applicable standard of care, and whether a patient is harmed as a result.

Standard of Care in Medical Malpractice Cases

Any person who pursues a medical malpractice case must prove several elements, including that the health care practitioner violated the applicable standard of care, and that the violation caused harm to the patient. A doctor or other practitioner must act with the same level of skill and care that other doctors would exercise under similar circumstances and in the same community. So, for example, if a surgeon’s action harms a patient, but other surgeons agree that the surgeon followed the appropriate protocol, there likely would be no medical malpractice. On the other hand, if the surgeon did not follow standard procedure, he could be found liable for medical malpractice.

Harm to Patient

As mentioned above, harm to the patient is also a required element in a medical malpractice case.  Suppose that a doctor prescribes an incorrect medicine, but the person who takes it does not suffer any adverse consequences. While the doctor may have committed a medical error, there is no case for medical malpractice because the patient is not injured.

Is the Threat of Medical Malpractice Enough to Protect You and Your Loved Ones?

In our opinion, holding professionals accountable for their negligence is an important deterrent to malpractice. Unfortunately, however, the statistics shared above suggest that it is not enough. In an illuminating, but alarming article, Dr. David Katz explores some of the dangers associated with hospitalization. Dr. Katz suggests that some negative behaviors, which should not be tolerated, are actually protected by and accepted into the standard of care because the behaviors have become common and accepted. The article suggests some helpful hints for protecting your loved ones in the hospital. Topping the list is the suggestion of constant and vigilant monitoring of your loved ones while they receive care.

Contact Us

If you have questions or concerns about medical treatment or care received by you or a loved one, please contact us. At Nelson MacNeil Rayfield we have experience investigating medical malpractice and are familiar with the applicable legal standards. We can help you determine if medical malpractice has occurred.


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