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

Updated By , J.D.
Most medical malpractice cases hinge on whether a health care professional was negligent in treating (or failing to treat) a patient. And medical negligence is always measured by the medical standard of care that applied in the specific treatment setting in which the patient was harmed.

The Medical Standard of Care, Defined

So, what is this legal measuring stick that is almost 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 or sworn statement from that witness alongside the initial complaint, testifying that in the expert's 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
  • 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 you, the patient.

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. Learn more about filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.

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