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Standard of Care: Treatment and Surgery

The standard of care owed to patients is the level of skill, expertise, and care possessed and practiced by physicians in the same or similar community, and under similar circumstances. At one time, the standard of care was based on what other doctors do in a specific geographic location. Rural doctors could be given more leniency than urban doctors. However, the advent of "national board" exams for new doctors and "board certifications" for doctor-specialists has resulted in a more uniform and standard practice of medicine not dependent upon geographic location.

Why is a Standard of Care Important?

The purpose of the standard of care in a medical malpractice case is to determine whether a doctor acted in a manner consistent with the expectations of the medical community. If a doctor did not do what is expected of someone in his or her field, the doctor may be held liable for any harm that comes from not adhering to those standards. For example, if the medical community has a generally accepted maximum dose for a medication, and the doctor administers a dose that exceeds that limit, the doctor can be held responsible for harm the patient suffers due to the high dosage.

General vs. Specialized Knowledge

All licensed physicians should possess a basic level of skill and expertise in diagnosing and treating general or recurring types of illnesses and injuries. Thus, a general practitioner who has administered sub-standard cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to a heart attack victim (who subsequently dies as a result of the sub-standard care) cannot claim that he or she was not a "cardio-pulmonary specialist" as a defense. A general practitioner from virtually any other area in the country could likely testify as to the level of care and expertise expected under the circumstances.

Conversely, a board-certified cardiopulmonary specialist could not testify that the general practitioner should have done everything that the specialist might have done with his advanced skill and training. Nor, under the locality rule, could an oncology specialist in private practice in a tiny American town be held to the same standard of care as an oncology specialist in a large urban university teaching hospital that has cutting edge, state-of-the-art equipment and facilities.

"The Conspiracy of Silence"

Because doctors are often reluctant to testify against their colleagues (referred to by lawyers as the "conspiracy of silence"), it may be difficult to find an unbiased expert willing to testify against a negligent doctor regarding sub-standard care. This resistance applies even when they practice on opposite sides of the country: they may know one another from the national board certifications or fellowship programs established for specialists. Moreover, truly competent doctors usually communicate with one another for professional "brainstorming" on diagnosing or treating some conditions, or may collaborate in research or academic publications. An experienced medical malpractice attorney, however, may be familiar with experts or other professionals willing to provide an opinion in such circumstances.

Did Your Doctor Fail to Provide the Proper Standard of Care?

If you're not a doctor yourself, you may have a difficult time understanding exactly what is expected of a physician and what comprises standard protocol for medical care. Outcomes are never guaranteed, but if your doctor has not provided the standard of care required by law, you may sue the doctor (and perhaps other defendants) for negligence. The first step is to find the right attorney.

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