Occasionally, a doctors or hospital makes a decision to discharge a patient too early -- in other words, before the patient is medically stable enough to go home. In situations where the patient needs to be readmitted to the same (or a different) care facility, the decision to discharge may amount to medical malpractice. Read on to learn more.
What is Medical Malpractice?
Not every mistake made by a health care professional or facility will rise to the level of medical malpractice. The action (or inaction) in question must fall below the accepted medical standard of care under the circumstances, and it must result in some kind of harm to the patient.
“Standard of care” is a legal term that is used to describe the level of care that a similarly-skilled health care professional would provide to a patient under the same, or similar, circumstances.
In the case of early discharge of a patient, the question becomes, “Would a similarly-skilled health care professional have discharged me given my condition and other circumstances of my treatment?” If the answer is no, you may have a viable medical malpractice case.
It is important to note that simply because you were readmitted, that does not necessarily mean you were “harmed” by the premature discharge. If you return and receive treatment you would have received had you remained in the hospital -- and the delay in treatment does not result in harm you would not have otherwise experienced -- you have not been “harmed” for medical malpractice purposes. You may feel annoyed, and inconvenienced, but you are not the victim of medical malpractice.
Why Do Hospitals Discharge Patients Too Early?
Hospitals often face overcrowding and are in a rush to get current patients out so they can get new patients in. The hospital may be concerned about the number of beds, or staff, available. The hospital may also be limited in the amount of surgical volume it can manage at a given time.
This may sound like an unpreventable issue. However, a number of studies have shown these types of shortages (beds or staff) are often due to poor planning on the hospital’s part.
If you were discharged prematurely and you were harmed as a result, your claim might include an argument that the defendant (which could include a doctor or a facility):
- failed to schedule a necessary follow-up visit
- failed to properly diagnose and treat
- failed to conduct proper testing prior to discharge, and/or
- failed to ensure medical stability.
How Do You Prove Your Claim?
In almost every variety of medical malpractice case, you will need an expert witness to testify on your behalf if your case makes it to trial. This expert will typically need to be trained and experienced in the same field as the health care professional that discharged you, and will need to testify that the decision to discharge you fell below the medical standard of care under the circumstances. The expert will also need to provide detailed information on how exactly you were harmed as a result of the defendant's decision to send you home.
In some states, when you file a medical malpractice lawsuit, you will need to simultaneously file an affidavit, signed by an expert, stating that your case has merit. That affidavit may need to include some or all of the same testimony discussed in the above paragraph.
Learn more about Expert Witnesses in a Medical Malpractice Case.
What Damages Can You Recover?
If you establish that your early discharge amounts to medical malpractice, you may be able to recover the following as damages:
- Medical Bills – This will be limited to those bills which would not have been incurred were it not for your early discharge.
- Lost Earnings – If you missed work due to your early discharge, you may recover the amount of income you lost during that time.
- Lost Ability to Earn an Income – If you cannot engage in certain work activities because of the harm caused by your early discharge, you may be able to receive compensation for this measurable monetary loss.
- Pain and Suffering – There is no hard and fast rule for determining what this amount will be, but it will be based in part on the severity and permanency of the harm you suffered as a result of your early discharge.
Learn more about Medical Malpractice Damages.
Prevention of Premature Patient Discharge
If you are concerned that a health care professional or a care facility may be ordering your discharge prematurely, you can take the following steps to protect yourself:
- Request your discharge rights from the hospital.
- Ask to speak with the health care professional treating you (also known as your “attending physician”) if you are concerned that your discharge may be premature.
- Speak up. If you are still in pain, or have limited ability to care for yourself (or receive care) at home, express these concerns.
A Final Note About Infant Patients
Early discharge of infants is the most common type of premature discharge in the United States. 48 hours is the minimum amount of time a hospital should keep a newborn infant. Based on individual needs, some may require more. Learn more about Birth-Related Medical Malpractice.