Have you ever heard the term standard of care? If you are not a lawyer or a doctor, you probably haven’t. Now try this, the next time you take your car to the mechanic ask him if there are rules or procedures in his profession regarding how to properly change oil, do a tune-up, or put your car onto the lift. Better yet, ask a pilot if there are rules she has to follow when flying a plane.
Of course, the answers to these questions are yes. Rules apply to everyone for all manner of tasks. Especially with nurses, doctors, hospitals and every other caregiver, except that when we speak of the medical profession we call the rules standards of care. But don’t let this confuse you: standards of care are the rules the medical professionals must follow. Nothing more, nothing less.
When a medical professional breaks the rules of his profession it is called medical malpractice. When they break the rules that is when doctor errors occur. One term is never enough for lawyers, so you may also hear terms like medical negligence, breaches of the standards of care, professional negligence, or professional malpractice. All of these terms refer to the same thing: breaking the rules of their profession.
The term “standard of care” is just another name for the rules that medical professionals must follow. If they don’t, it is called malpractice.
You may wonder if there is a rulebook that contains all the rules that nurses, doctors, and hospital are supposed to follow. The simple answer is no because it would be impossible to have a written rule for every situation faced by a medical professional. The rules come from various sources like:
- medical school
- on-the-job training
- research articles
- medical textbooks
- medical seminars
- state and federal laws
There are a lot of sources for the rules a medical professional must follow. A nurse, doctor or hospital cannot do what they do without learning and applying the rules of their profession. The same way a mechanic or pilot must follow the rules of his or her profession.
Discovering the Rules
Now if you have been a victim of medical malpractice your lawyers need to know what rules were broken. There are two primary ways lawyers discover the rules that apply in a given medical case:
- researching the medicine
- consulting with medical experts
Here is an example:
Many years ago the parents of a young girl who died of bacterial meningitis in the emergency department of a local hospital came to our office to discuss whether they had a medical malpractice case. Bacterial meningitis is an infection of the lining of the brain. It is a very serious medical condition. The parents told us that even though their daughter was very sick, she waited several hours in the emergency department before seeing a doctor, and then several more hours before the doctor gave her any treatment.
Although we knew a lot about bacterial meningitis cases, the first thing we did was research the disease again because sometimes medical rules change over time. What we discovered was that treatment of bacterial meningitis hadn’t changed in twenty years, and that every possible source of information on the disease—medical textbooks, medical articles, seminars, and even the hospitals’ own written policies—had the exact same rule: Every patient suspected of having bacterial meningitis must get antibiotics as soon as possible, with the maximum time being no longer than an hour after the patient enters the hospital.
Lawyers discover the rules of the medical profession by researching the medicine and talking to medical experts.
Since our clients’ daughter didn’t get antibiotics for eight hours, it was pretty obvious that someone didn’t follow the rules. We contacted a doctor specializing in emergency medicine and a nurse specializing in emergency department nursing and asked them to review our clients’ daughter’s medical records and tell us what they thought. After their review, they confirmed our suspicions. The medical personnel in the emergency department failed to follow the basic rules for treating bacterial meningitis.