Medical malpractice can be generally defined as substandard treatment by a physician or other healthcare professional that directly results in physical or economic damages to the patient. "Substandard" care refers to care that violates normal medical practices. Therefore, there are three factors that must be present to prove medical malpractice: liability, damages, and a direct causal link.
To meet the requirement of liability, it must first be proven that a professional relationship existed between the patient and health care provider. This is rarely a problem. Proving substandard care can be difficult, however, depending on the nature of the violation. Inadequate care in and of itself does not amount to malpractice.
Injury, suffering or economic damages must be present and must be a direct result of the negligence. Many facets of medical care, including surgery, have inherent risks even with proper care. Unless negligence can be proven in such a case, a bad outcome alone is not grounds for malpractice.
Medical malpractice can take many forms. Some examples are failure to diagnose a life-threatening disease, errors made in medication, surgical errors, failure to provide proper follow-up care, prenatal or delivery room errors, and miscalculations with anesthesia. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association some 225,000 deaths annually (in the US) are attributed to medical malpractice, making it the third largest cause of death. About 82% of these are due to either adverse reactions that should have been anticipated to medications, or contracting infections while staying at a hospital. About 9% are caused by miscellaneous errors and another 9% by unnecessary surgery or medication errors.
Bringing a medical malpractice suit against a hospital employee can be more complicated than suits brought against private practitioners. Often, select members of a hospital staff are provided by private contractors. In that case the negligent party and the contractor are named in the suit, rather than the hospital itself. Exceptions do exist to this rule, as when a hospital has had prior warning about an employee.
HMOs (health maintenance organizations), by restricting medical care in order to avoid "unnecessary" expenses, are often targeted for cases of negligence if the care they refuse to approve results in serious injury or death. However, winning a case against a HMO is a difficult task at best. Many factors come into play including whether the health insurance is private or offered through an employee, and even whether the plaintiff is a federal employee or not.
When multiple parties have been affected by the same negligent party, it is often more efficient to bring a class action suit. Class action suits can name hundreds or even thousands of plaintiffs. Any award granted from a successful suit is distributed to the plaintiffs after the legal parties and court costs have been satisfied.
Different from medical malpractice is medical battery, the intentional violation of a patient's rights to direct his or her own care, as in the case of refusing treatment, either by advance decree or through a health-care proxy. No injury or negligence is necessary to find medical battery.
Laws governing medical malpractice, HMOs, and medical battery vary from state to state, and may entail additional or different criteria than presented here. This article is only intended to provide very general information and should not be taken as legal advice. Please consult a lawyer or firm that specializes in this area of law. Many such lawyers offer free initial consultations.