Medscape Malpractice Report 2021 shows that 51% of physicians participating in the study have faced at least one lawsuit in their careers. Medical malpractice cases are not only widespread but also costly and stressful. So, what exactly is medical malpractice, and how can one avoid or manage it if accused?

In this article, we’ll help you understand and prevent medical malpractice, defend yourself if sued, and handle the emotional and professional repercussions of a lawsuit.

What is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice is a legal term that refers to a healthcare professional’s careless act or omission that deviates from the standard of care and causes patient harm or injury. The standard of care refers to the expected level of skill and competence that a reasonably prudent healthcare professional would provide in similar circumstances. Medical malpractice can include errors in diagnosis, treatment, surgery, medication, or communication.

A medical malpractice lawsuit’s legal process can be complex and time-consuming, requiring evidence, witnesses, expert testimony, and negotiations. A malpractice lawsuit can have serious consequences, ranging from reputational harm and license suspension to financial penalties and criminal accusations.

What Are the Standards of Care in Medical Practice?

Standards of care indicate the expected degree of expertise, care, and diligence provided to a patient by a reasonably competent healthcare provider in the same field and under similar circumstances.

These standards are not fixed rules; instead, they are flexible guidelines that change with current medical knowledge and practices. They are established through professional societies, expert panels, clinical trials, evidence-based reviews, and consensus statements.

Standards of care can vary depending on the patient’s condition, age, medical history, location, available resources, and current medical knowledge. To deliver quality care that meets or exceeds the standards of care, you must stay updated on the latest developments and recommendations in your specialty.

  • Participate in continuing education courses offering relevant, evidence-based information on your practice field.
  • Adhere to clinical guidelines and protocols developed by reputable organizations, grounded in systematic reviews of the best available evidence. The National Guideline Clearinghouse provides access to many clinical guidelines.
  • Consult with more experienced peers or mentors on specific areas or cases. Joining professional networks or communities of practice can promote knowledge-sharing and collaboration among healthcare professionals.
  • Solicit feedback from patients, colleagues, supervisors, or quality improvement teams on your performance and areas for improvement. Engaging in peer review or audit processes can help evaluate your adherence to standards of care.

What Are the Legal Consequences of Medical Malpractice?

Medscape Malpractice Report 2021 shows that 51% of physicians participating in the study have faced at least one lawsuit in their careers. Medical malpractice cases are not only widespread but also costly and stressful.

Facing a medical malpractice lawsuit can be an intimidating and stressful ordeal. You might have to contend with significant legal and financial ramifications, not to mention the potential harm to your professional reputation. Let’s take a closer look at the legal process of such a lawsuit.

  1. Filing a Complaint: The first step involves filing a complaint within the legal time limit. This limit can vary but generally ranges from one to six years from the date of the alleged malpractice.
  1. Pre-Suit Procedures: These may include notifying the defendant of the claim, acquiring a certificate of merit from an expert witness, engaging in mediation or arbitration, or submitting the claim to a medical review panel.
  1. Proving Negligence and Causation: This step involves demonstrating that the defendant violated the standard of care and that this violation directly resulted in the plaintiff’s harm or injury. Usually, this requires expert testimony from qualified medical professionals who can clarify the standard of care and how the defendant deviated from it.
  1. Proving Damages: The plaintiff must show that they incurred actual losses or harms as a consequence of the defendant’s negligence.
  1. Settlement Negotiation or Trial: A medical malpractice lawsuit can be resolved either by negotiating a settlement or going to trial.

The outcomes and implications of a medical malpractice lawsuit can be serious. You might face civil liability and damages, meaning you are legally obligated to compensate the plaintiff for their injuries. The amount of damages could be limited or lowered based on factors like comparative fault. Moreover, the lawsuit can lead to disciplinary actions by state medical boards. These actions can affect your privileges and accreditation with healthcare organizations.

In some cases, if the conduct was intentional, reckless, fraudulent, or involved misconduct, criminal charges could be filed. Convictions could result in penalties like imprisonment, fines, or community service.  

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Strategies for Protecting Yourself from Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

Being proactive about managing your risk can shield you both legally and financially from medical malpractice lawsuits.

Obtain a Comprehensive Medical Liability Insurance

Such insurance can cover your legal fees and damages in the event of a lawsuit. It’s important to carefully review your policy to ensure it covers your practice’s scope, location, and type. For added security, consider buying an umbrella policy or additional coverage.

Maintain Meticulous Records

Proper documentation provides evidence of your actions and decisions should a dispute arise. Maintain accurate, complete, and timely records of patient interactions, including history, physical examination, diagnosis, treatment plan, informed consent, and more. If adverse events, complications, or errors occur, make sure to document them and your subsequent actions.

Cooperate with Your Insurance Provider

Avoid breaching your contract or jeopardizing your coverage. Notify your insurer as soon as you receive a claim notice or lawsuit summons, and follow their advice on how to respond, cooperating with their investigation and defense strategy.

Engage a Qualified Lawyer

A lawyer specializing in medical malpractice defense with a strong track record can help protect your rights and interests. Regular, honest communication with your lawyer is key, and their instructions should be followed closely.

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How to Handle a Medical Malpractice Claim?

Facing a medical malpractice accusation can be stressful and disconcerting. Concerns about reputation, career, and finances are common. However, there are ways to manage a malpractice claim effectively and mitigate its impact:

  • Respond Appropriately: Upon receiving a notice of a potential or actual medical malpractice claim, immediately notify your insurer and lawyer. Preserve all evidence relating to the case and avoid contact with the plaintiff or their attorney. Refrain from admitting fault or apologizing, as this could imply liability or guilt.
  • Cooperate with Your Insurance Provider and Lawyer: Your insurer and lawyer are your advocates in a malpractice lawsuit, aiding in information gathering, defense preparation, settlement negotiation, and court representation. Provide them with accurate and comprehensive information, maintain regular and prompt communication, and respect their decisions.
  • Maintain Emotional and Professional Wellbeing: A malpractice claim can take a toll on your mental and physical health, and professional confidence. Seek support from family, friends, colleagues, or counselors. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and continuing to provide quality care to your patients can help manage stress. Additionally, learn from any mistakes by identifying areas for improvement, seeking feedback, and implementing changes in your practice.

FAQs about Medical Malpractice

  • How common are medical malpractice lawsuits in the US?
    Medical malpractice lawsuits are relatively common in the US. According to the Medscape Malpractice Report 2019, 59% of physicians have been named in at least one lawsuit during their careers. The most sued specialties were surgery (85%), obstetrics/gynecology (85%), orthopedics (79%), radiology (72%), and anesthesiology (58%). In 2019, the average payout for a medical malpractice claim was $358,650.
  • How can I reduce my risk of being sued for medical malpractice?
    Some of these steps include building a good rapport with your patients, obtaining informed consent, documenting your care thoroughly, following evidence-based guidelines, consulting with specialists when necessary, disclosing and apologizing for errors, reviewing your cases regularly, updating your skills and knowledge, adhering to ethical principles, and practicing within your scope.
  • How can I defend myself against a medical malpractice claim?
    The best defense is to provide high-quality care that meets the standard of care. However, if you do face a claim, it is important to take appropriate steps. These include contacting your insurer immediately, hiring a qualified lawyer experienced in medical malpractice defense, gathering all relevant records and evidence, preparing your testimony and arguments, considering all possible options for resolution (such as settlement or trial), and being honest and cooperative throughout the process.
  • How does a medical malpractice claim affect my reputation and license?
    A medical malpractice claim can have significant consequences for your reputation and license. Depending on the outcome of the claim, you may experience negative publicity and reviews, a loss of trust and confidence from patients, peers, and employers, increased scrutiny and monitoring by regulators, and the potential for suspension or revocation of your license. It may also become more challenging to find employment or obtain insurance, and you may face exclusion from federal or state healthcare programs.
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