Somewhere between 210,000 and 400,000 Americans die each year due to a medical error (James 2013); it is now the third leading cause of death in the United States (Makary 2016). Many more sustain injuries that leave them with lifelong disabilities. Moreover, a recent national survey revealed that 21% of Americans have personally experienced a medical error, and 31% have been involved in the care of a family member or friend who did. As discussed above, tort reform measures may be effective in limiting the number and success of malpractice lawsuits, but don’t necessarily address the underlying issue of the malpractice epidemic in America.
A violation of the standard of care - The law acknowledges that there are certain medical standards that are recognized by the profession as being acceptable medical treatment by reasonably prudent health care professionals under like or similar circumstances. This is known as the standard of care. A patient has the right to expect that health care professionals will deliver care that is consistent with these standards. If it is determined that the standard of care has not been met, then negligence may be established.
Roman law spread throughout continental Europe around 1200 AD, and many countries’ current laws regarding personal injury and medical malpractice derive from Roman origin. English common law was greatly influenced by the Romans, and in turn 19th century English common law had a substantial influence on the American legal system. During the reign of Charles V, a law took form that required medical professionals’ opinions to be taken into account in cases of violent deaths. This served as a precursor to the presence of expert testimony in medical malpractice cases in order to establish standard of care (for more information on standard of care, see “Medical Malpractice in the U.S.”)
In addition to notifying a health care provider that you intend to file a lawsuit, prior to filing suit in most jurisdictions, the injured patient must usually submit an affidavit or certificate from a qualified expert. This affidavit or certificate is usually completed by another doctor who can testify that there are reasonable grounds to determine that medical negligence or medical malpractice took place in a given case. Again, the exact requirements of the certificate vary from state to state and across jurisdictions.
Surgical errors are a common form of medical negligence. A negligent act can involve a doctor accidentally cutting or cauterizing an internal organ, if a more careful performance could have prevented it. Some common injuries resulting from surgical errors relate to foreign fluids, such as urine, bile, or feces that enter the abdominal cavity, through a cut unintentionally made during surgery. This can lead to severe infections and sepsis, or septic shock, which can cause a patients' death. Another example of surgical error is called a wrong site surgery. There have been documented cases of patients needing an arm, leg, hand, or finger amputated, and an administrative mistake prior to surgery, results in the wrong appendage being removed.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that “true consent to what happens to one’s self is the informed exercise of a choice, and that entails an opportunity to evaluate knowledgeably the options available and the risks attendant upon each … it is the prerogative of the patient, not the physician, to determine for himself the direction in which his interests seem to lie.”