What Is the "Medical Standard of Care" In a Medical Malpractice Case?

The "medical standard of care" is the legal yardstick that's used to determine whether a health care provider might be liable for medical malpractice.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
When there's evidence that a patient has suffered unnecessary harm because of a health care provider's mistake, there might be a valid case for medical malpractice. Proving the case almost always starts with establishing the "medical standard of care." Here's what to know at the outset:
  • Medical malpractice cases hinge on whether a health care professional was negligent when providing care to a patient.
  • The "medical standard of care" is at the heart of the negligence issue, since it's something of a legal yardstick for evaluating the health care provider's conduct.
  • A qualified medical expert's assistance is almost always necessary when an injured patient needs to show exactly how a health care provider fell short of the applicable standard of care.

Medical Standard of Care Definition

So, how do we define this legal measuring stick that's sure to affect your medical malpractice case? Here's one answer:

The "medical standard of care" is typically defined as the level and type of care that a reasonably competent and skilled health care professional, with a similar background and in the same medical community, would have provided under the circumstances that led to the alleged malpractice.

In other words, the critical question in a medical malpractice case is, "Would a similarly skilled health care professional have provided me with the same treatment under the same, or similar, circumstances?" If the answer is, "no," and you were harmed as a result of the sub-standard treatment, you may have a medical malpractice case. Learn more about common errors by doctors and hospitals.

How Is This Standard of Care Established?

In a medical malpractice lawsuit, it is almost always a qualified expert medical witness who will testify as to:

  • what the appropriate medical standard of care was under the circumstances, and
  • exactly how the doctor's deviation from that standard played a role in the plaintiff's injuries.

In fact, many states have passed laws requiring that a medical malpractice plaintiff retain an expert who has experience in the same (or at least similar) medical field as the defendant. In some states the plaintiff must even file an "affidavit of merit" or sworn statement from alongside the initial complaint (the document that starts the lawsuit), in which a qualified expert states under oath that in their opinion, the medical standard of care was violated.

Learn more about requirements for filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.

What About 'Specialists'?

Certain health care professionals are considered specialists in their field. These professionals have usually gone through rigorous training and examinations, and are usually held to a higher standard of care, i.e. the same degree of care that a reasonably competent specialist with similar training and experience would use under similar circumstances.

Here are a few common examples of health care specialties:

  • neurology
  • allergy
  • radiology
  • internal medicine
  • anesthesiology
  • ophthalmology
  • pediatrics, and
  • cardiology.

Putting the "Standard" in Perspective

Simply because a health care professional or facility makes a mistake, that does not mean medical malpractice has occurred. In order to amount to malpractice, medical treatment has to fall below an accepted medical standard of care, and the sub-standard treatment must result in harm to the patient. (In the language of the law, compensable harm to an injured person is known as "damages.")

In other words, unless the defendant care provider did (or failed to do) something that fell short of the medical standard of care, there is no malpractice. Similarly, if a health care professional did in fact provide sub-standard care, but nobody was harmed by it, there is no malpractice.

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Getting Help With a Medical Malpractice Claim

If you've read this far and you think you might have a valid medical malpractice claim against a doctor or other health care provider, your best first step might be discussing your situation with an experienced lawyer.
With some kinds of legal claims, trying to handle things on your own (at least initially) might make sense. Not so with medical malpractice cases, which are incredibly complex and notoriously difficult to win.
An experienced medical malpractice lawyer will rely on a network of medical expert witnesses to help build the patient's best case, through careful analysis of complex medical records and skilled presentation of evidence. They'll also fight for the best result at every stage of the case, and will have the expertise to negotiate for a fair outcome.
Learn more about hiring a medical malpractice lawyer and how it might boost your chance of a successful case. You can use the features on this page to connect with an injury lawyer in your area.
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