What Does 'Standard of Care' Mean?

Standard Of Care Isn't Always Straightforward

To recover against a doctor for medical malpractice, one of the elements of a negligence cause of action is showing that the doctor did not live up to his or her standard of care. Ostensibly, this may seem like a simple enough concept. After all, if your doctor misdiagnosed you, isn't that an indication that the doctor breached the duty of care? Practically, however, what the right "standard of care" is can be confusing. The confusion stems from case law and different states taking different approaches.

It All Started With Tugboats

The confusion first began with a case that had nothing to do with doctors and patients; it concerned tugboats. The 1932 case of The T.J. Hooper had to do with an owner of a tugboat being sued as a result of the two barges he was transporting sinking in the midst of a storm. The tugboat was not equipped with a radio. While it wasn't yet custom for tugboats to be equipped with radios, Judge Learned Hand ruled that if there is a practice that was reasonable but not universally customary, it could still be used as a measure of the standard of care.

Harmless And Inexpensive Practices Trump Custom

On the heels of this case came Helling v. Carey. This medical malpractice case had to do with a young woman who sued her ophthalmologist (Carey) for the loss of her eyesight due to glaucoma. At the time, there was a test for glaucoma that, while not customarily used, was harmless and inexpensive. The doctor had not performed this test on the patient. The court essentially ruled that even though the customary practice at the time was followed, the physician was still liable.

What both of these cases established was that custom is not the be all end all; a doctor can still be liable even if he or she is acting in accordance with the custom of the day.

A Bad Result Doesn't Equal Negligence

More recent case law has provided more clarity regarding what the standard of care is. In the 1985 case of Hall v. Hilbun, the court emphasized that the standard of care is not to be equated with perfect practice. Then, in the 1995 case of McCourt v. Abernathy, the court came to a very important ruling, holding that "Negligence may not be inferred from a bad result. Our law says that a physician is not an insurer of health, and a physician is not required to guarantee results. He undertakes only to meet the standard of skill possessed generally by others practicing in his field under similar circumstances." In other words, this case held that the standard of care for doctors consists of how a reasonably prudent doctor in the same field would have acted under similar circumstances.

Call Us To Learn More

While case law continues to develop, there is much more clarity today regarding what standard of care a doctor must live up to when treating a patient. If you have been injured or think you may have been injured because of the malpractice of a doctor or hospital, contact our lawyers for a free and confidential case evaluation. Call 713-352-7883 or 877-643-3099 toll free or complete our contact form.