The litigation for medical malpractice began in the 1960s, when the claims were very few. By the 1970s, these lawsuits increased in number, the physicians and healthcare professionals began to claim that these suits were interfering with their medical practice.
Medical malpractice is defined as the failure of a doctor or a healthcare professional such as nurses, dentists, pharmacists, etc., to exercise the amount of care and skill which other healthcare professionals of the same medical community exercise, leading to injury to the patient. If this happens then the patient can claim that the doctor is guilty of medical malpractice.
Since negligence is the basis for these allegations, usually these claims fall under the scope of the law of torts.
Claims: What Needs To Be Proved?
In a typical medical malpractice suit, the following things must be proven by the plaintiff (the person who is complaining):
- The physician owed him/her a duty of care
- The physician violated the applicable standard of care
- The plaintiff suffered a compensable injury
- The injury was caused by the sub-standard care and conduct of the physician
If any of the aforementioned points are proven then it means that the physician owes a duty of care to all those patients who seek his treatment. Once a doctor agrees to treat a patient, the patient is now under the care of the doctor and the doctor must provide him professional and competent care. The standards of care are usually laid down by different doctors' associations.
However, if the treatment results in some kind of compensable injury to the patient, then the proof of such injury must be shown by the plaintiff. This includes physical injury and emotional effects of the treatment.
If a patient can prove that the aforementioned facts are true, then he can claim for damages in this case of medical malpractice. The burden of proof lies on the patient, and not on the doctor or healthcare professional.
During the proceedings of the suit, often testimonies of experts and expert witnesses are called for by both sides of the claim.
Types of Damages
The damages in the cases of medical malpractice can be classified as compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages include economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages can include financial losses such as loss of wages, expenses for the medical care, etc. These can also be assessed for past and future losses, if any. The non-economic losses are the losses caused due to the injury itself, such as physical loss (like loss of vision due to wrong treatment), the reduction in the enjoyment of life due to this injury, pain, and emotional stress.
The punitive damages are usually awarded in the case of reckless conduct by the physician.
Often, the claims in these cases of medical malpractice can go up to millions of dollars in compensations. It is due to this fact, that most states have enacted limits for the damages awarded. These restrictions limit the compensations for non-economic losses, such as for 'pain and suffering' related claims.
How Doctors React
Insurance does not often cover for these medical malpractice suits. Because of this the insurance companies began to charge hefty premiums for doctors. The doctors began to suffer because of this. They claim that the cost of health care has gone up because of the rising number of malpractice claims.
So, now the doctors practice a lot of what is termed as 'defensive medicine'. This means that a patient may often have to go through unnecessary tests and procedures which may not be medically required. These are merely defenses against the possibility of future malpractice claims.