What You Need to Know About Medical Malpractice

April 23, 2015

Taking a patients' blood pressure in Tanzania If you are a med student, you have probably had an incident when you were afraid of making a mistake. Mistakes in medicine happen for a variety of reasons. Some errors are small and nothing significant results. In other cases, a medical mistake can lead to serious injury or death. When major mistakes do occur, a medical malpractice case is a possibility.

If you are a healthcare worker, learning you are involved in a medical malpractice case can be a pretty scary situation. Understanding what malpractice is and how it can affect you as a healthcare professional can help you learn how to navigate the situation.

What is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice involves negligence by a medical professional. Although nurses and other healthcare workers can be guilty of medical malpractice, in many cases, a physician is at the center of a malpractice case.

In order for malpractice to have occurred a negligent or fraudulent act must have caused the injury to a patient. If a minor mistake was made that did not result in any harm or injury to the patient, a medical malpractice case is not likely. For example, if you ordered a chest x-ray on the wrong patient, it is a mistake but it did not harm the patient. On the opposite extreme, if you operated on the wrong patient, there is a good chance a medical malpractice case will be filed.

Mistakes involving medical errors, treatments or lack of interventions, which resulted in harm are common cases of medical malpractice cases. Different jurisdictions may have different laws regarding medical malpractice. 

Generally, in order for a plaintiff, such as a patient, to establish medical malpractice occurred, certain elements of the case must be proven. For example, the doctor must have had a duty to deliver care to the patient. Negligence must have occurred, and an injury or harm to the patient must be a direct result of the negligence.

In some cases, negligence is easy to determine and prove in court. For example, if the wrong limb was amputated, it is easy to see negligence occurred, and it harmed the patient. If the wrong dose of a medication was administered and a patient died, it may be easy to prove negligence. But in other cases, medical malpractice is not as clear cut.

Do You Need Malpractice Insurance

If you are becoming a doctor, you will likely need to buy malpractice insurance. Although most medical professionals will not be involved in a malpractice case, some hospitals and medical practices may require doctors to carry professional liability insurance. Speak to an insurance representative to determine specifics about buying malpractice insurance. 

Safeguarding Against Medical Malpractice

There are some things you can do to safeguard against a medical malpractice case. Consider some of the following suggestions:

Carry liability insurance: You may be required to carry malpractice insurance by your employer. Talk with a legal expert and determine how much insurance you should have.

Follow your facilities policies: If you follow hospital policy regarding treatments and protocols you are less likely to get into trouble. If you divert from regulations and hospital rules, the facility is less likely to defend you.

Document thoroughly: If you don’t document something happened, it is difficult to prove it occurred. Charting accurately and thoroughly can help paint a picture of what occurred with a patient. In addition, it will help jog your memory if something comes into questions. It is possible to be called for a deposition months or years after an event has occurred. Don’t rely on your memory for the facts.

Always do your best: Don’t let fatigue or anything else get in the way of you doing your best work. While no one is perfect, many medical mistakes that end up in malpractice suits can be avoided by being conscientious.

What Should you Do If you are Involved in a Malpractice Case?

No one wants to think they will be involved in a medical malpractice case. If you are involved, the first thing to do is stay calm. Remember, if you do get sued for medical malpractice, you are not the first doctor to go through a lawsuit and certainly will not be the last. Although it can be an upsetting experience, you will get through it.

It may be helpful to consider some of the following factors:

Realize not all cases have merit. Not everyone who sues has a case. There are many instances where a doctor is served with a lawsuit and the case either never goes to trial, or the doctor wins and is not found negligent.

Utilize representation. If you work for a hospital, you should notify your risk management department as soon as you are served with a lawsuit. Risk management employs lawyers who specialize in medical malpractice. Your lawyer will walk you through the process. Becoming educated and understanding what will happen helps reduce anxiety. 

Review documentation. At some point, you will be able to review the patient’s medical record. You will need that information to answer questions in a deposition. You may or may not remember specifics about the case. Hopefully, your documentation is clear and helps paint a picture of what occurred. It is helpful to carefully review everything so you will be able to answer questions to the best of your ability.

Expect things to take a long time. Medical malpractice lawsuits are not quick. It could take years after an incident for a malpractice case to be resolved. Malpractice cases have to go through a long process including discovery, which is the investigation process. It could takes months for this phase alone. While in the midst of a malpractice case, try to stay focused on other areas so your life. Lean on your support system and avoid obsessing over your case.

Be honest. Whether you made a mistake or not, be honest in your deposition and all interactions with the court. Not only is being dishonest a bad idea, but it is illegal and could get you into a worse situation.