Anzalone Law Offices Understands Medical Malpractice
Medical malpractice is a phrase used to describe a healthcare provider’s negligent care that harms a patient. Hospitals and clinics can be held accountable for the negligent acts of their nurses and other employees, as can individual healthcare professionals including physicians, dentists, and chiropractors.
Pennsylvania law imposes a duty upon healthcare professionals to provide care that meets the standard generally followed by members of the medical community who practice in the same field of medicine. Medical specialists are therefore held to higher standards than general practitioners.
Malpractice occurs when a healthcare provider fails to adhere to an appropriate standard of care, and the failure is a substantial factor in causing harm to the patient. It need not be the only factor that harms the patient. For example, cancer might be the factor that ultimately causes a patient’s death, but the failure to make a timely diagnosis of cancer can shorten a patient’s lifespan and is a substantial factor in causing harm to the patient. Medical negligence that increases the risk of eventual harm to a patient can be sufficient to satisfy the “substantial factor” test in Pennsylvania.
All medical malpractice cases in Pennsylvania require expert testimony to establish the prevailing standard of care and the negligent provider’s failure to meet that standard.
A 2004 report by Public Citizen estimated that as many as 4,277 hospital deaths in Pennsylvania each year are attributable to medical negligence. A more recent national study concluded that medical malpractice in hospitals is responsible for more than 400,000 premature deaths each year. The same study estimated that ten to twenty times that number of hospitalized patients suffer serious but nonlethal harm each year due to medical negligence. Given the number of additional patients who are harmed by medical malpractice that occurs outside of a hospital environment, it is easy to understand why the study’s authors referred to medical malpractice as an “epidemic.”
Types of Medical Malpractice
Physicians and other healthcare providers have been held accountable for a variety of errors in medical malpractice lawsuits. Here are some common examples:
- Misdiagnosis occurs when the symptoms from which a patient suffers are mistaken for symptoms of a condition, illness or disease that the patient does not have. Delayed diagnosis occurs when a correct diagnosis is eventually made, but not as promptly as the diagnosis would have been made by a reasonably skilled physician under the same circumstances. A delayed diagnosis can cause a disease to progress or spread. In addition to exposing the patient to unnecessary suffering, a misdiagnosis or a delayed diagnosis may allow a disease to reach an incurable stage. Failure to treat occurs when there is a diagnosis, but the physician’s course of care does not meet currently accepted medical standards. A failure to provide effective treatment can occur when a physician renders treatment that is dangerously aggressive or that is not sufficiently aggressive to be effective.
- Childbirth injuries include systemic damages to a newborn infant that occur when mistakes are made while delivering a baby. Injuries to newborns can also arise from improper prenatal care.
- Anesthesia errors occur when an anesthesiologist administers the incorrect amount of anesthetic or an anesthetic to which a patient has a known allergy. This type of negligence can result in serious health complications, including brain damage, cardiac injuries, and death.
- Medication errors include injuries sustained when a doctor prescribes a medication to which a patient has a known allergy, causing the patient to suffer an adverse reaction. Prescribing medication that can harm a fetus is negligent when the doctor fails to diagnose a pregnancy before prescribing the medication. Medication errors in hospitals and clinics occur when staff members mistakenly administer a drug that is not the prescribed medication. Prescribing and administering an incorrect dosage of a medication are also common examples of medication errors. Additionally, a doctor may negligently prescribe a drug without determining that it will react adversely with other drugs that the patient is taking.
- Surgical errors include preventable mistakes during surgery. Mistakenly cutting an artery and damaging a vital organ can lead to a patient’s wrongful death. Leaving sponges or surgical instruments inside the patient can lead to infections and additional surgery, while operating on the wrong limb exposes a patient to the risks of additional surgery and an extended recovery period.
- Informed consent errors occur when a physician treats a patient without the patient’s knowledge and consent. One common example occurs when a patient has consented to a surgical procedure and, during the course of surgery, the surgeon decides to perform an additional procedure (such as a hysterectomy) without discussing the procedure and obtaining the patient’s agreement that it should be done. Informed consent violations also occur when a physician obtains a patient’s consent to treatment but does not explain all significant risks involved in the treatment. Except under limited circumstances (usually involving emergencies), doctors commit malpractice when they provide treatment without discussing its risks and benefits and thereafter obtaining the patient’s consent to the treatment.
- Breach of physician/patient confidentiality can give rise to a civil remedy under certain circumstances. Pennsylvania recognizes the existence of a physician-patient privilege and a psychotherapist-patient privilege. Federal law also protects the privacy of certain healthcare records. In some situations, the intentional or negligent breach of the duty to keep healthcare information confidential entitles a patient to a legal remedy.
- Wrongful death claims result from medical negligence that causes a patient’s death. When a patient dies from a preventable infection acquired during hospitalization, from an error made during an operation, or from a failure to diagnose and treat a fatal condition when prompt treatment would have prolonged the patient’s life, a wrongful death claim can be based on medical malpractice.
Related cases involve products liability claims that are based on defective medical devices. When a medical device, such as a dialysis machine or a pacemaker, fails to function as intended, any resulting harm to the patient can be the basis for a products liability lawsuit (and for a medical malpractice lawsuit if a healthcare provider’s negligence contributed to the harm).
Types of Medical Malpractice Injuries
Medical malpractice causes a wide variety of injuries. The most severe cases cause the patient’s sudden or premature death. Other errors condemn a patient to prolonged suffering that could have been avoided. Medical negligence can lead to costly medical bills, loss of employment, and years of rehabilitative therapy.
Examples of injuries caused by medical malpractice include:
- Brain damage resulting from a lack of oxygen to the brain can result from medical negligence during childbirth or from the incorrect administration of anesthesia during surgical procedures.
- Infection is one of the most common injuries caused by medical negligence. Improperly sterilized instruments and the failure to follow infection-control procedures in hospitals are leading causes of death for hospitalized patients.
- Amputation can result from bloodstream infections when hospitals fail to sterilize catheters or other medical instruments and when physicians fail to diagnose or treat infections.
- Foreign objects left inside a patient during surgery require another invasive medical procedure even if they do not lead to a life-threatening infection.
- Wrongful death can be caused by surgical errors, misdiagnoses, mistakes during childbirth, medication errors, and other acts of medical negligence described above.
- Allergic reactions to improperly prescribed medication sometimes cause severe complications and may expose a patient to the risk of death.
- Radiation overdoses during cancer treatment may produce symptoms that range from severe nausea to deadly infections.
- Burns are among the most painful injuries that result from medical malpractice. They include laser burns, radiation burns, chemical burns, electrical burns and thermal burns. In some cases, treatment of the burn injury can make matters worse and lead to infections or other complications.
- Spinal injection injuries afflict patients being treated for lumbar and cervical radiculopathy. They also affect patients receiving cortisol treatments for back and nerve injuries. Infection at the injection site results when medical staff fail to exercise special care while administering a spinal injection.
- Wrong site surgeries often result in the need for additional surgical procedures when surgeries are performed on the wrong part or side of the body. In some cases, surgeons perform the wrong surgical procedure on a patient (usually sharing blame with hospital staff members who mixed up medical records). The patient must then recover from unnecessary surgery while enduring the stress of delaying the operation that should have been performed.
- Childbirth injuries can be fatal. Babies that survive acts of negligent delivery may suffer from broken bones, cerebral palsy, Erb’s palsy, nerve damage, brain injuries, and spinal damage.
A variety of other injuries can result from improper care. Emergency room negligence and improper treatment by EMTs and paramedics often adds to the trauma experienced by injury victims. Those errors can lead to paralysis, brain aneurysms, stroke, pulmonary embolism, and damage to the immune system caused by incompatible blood during transfusions.
Causes of Medical Malpractice
The injuries described above can occur as the result of a doctor’s negligence or because hospital staff failed to discharge their duties carefully. The most common causes of medical malpractice committed by doctors are:
- Failure to diagnose a disease or complication or a delay in diagnosis due to inattention, the failure to take a complete medical history, inadequate training, the failure to consult with an appropriate specialist, or pressure by insurance companies that do not want to pay for necessary diagnostic tests.
- Failure to provide adequate treatment of a medical condition or disease due to lack of awareness of state-of-the-art treatment or a rush to treat too many patients.
- Failure to prescribe the proper medication resulting from neglect to take a full medical history or to perform tests that would reveal medication allergies.
- Medication dosage errors caused by fatigue or inattention.
- Surgical errors caused by fatigue or pressure to rush through the operation in order to keep on schedule.
- Inappropriate abandonment of a patient resulting from poor record-keeping or payment disputes with insurers.
- Failure to obtain informed consent due to concerns that the patient will not follow the doctor’s advice if fully warned of all risks.
Negligent acts committed by hospital staff include:
- Staff members’ failure to wash hands or to sterilize equipment due to time concerns, laziness, or fatigue.
- Administration failures to implement and/or enforce procedures to avoid hospital-acquired infections.
- Widespread problems that may spread infections (such as contaminated ducts in a ventilation system) that hospital administration fails to address in order to save money.
- Medication administration errors due to poor recordkeeping, inattention, improper training, or lack of supervision.
- Fear of contradicting or confronting a doctor after noticing that the doctor is making a mistake.
- Failure to train nurses and staff on proper hospital procedures (such as procedures for lifting and transporting patients).
- Failure to assign enough supervisors to assure that nurses and staff follow procedures.
Whether patient injuries are caused by physicians or by staff members, patients who are harmed by medical malpractice have the right to pursue compensation.
What to Do If You Are a Victim of Medical Malpractice
If you suspect that you have been a victim of medical negligence or that a loved one died due to medical malpractice, there are steps you should take as soon as you begin your fight for justice. Be sure to do the following:
- Obtain copies of all your pertinent medical records.
- Take pictures of your injuries (when applicable) and remember that the more photos and details you have, the better prepared you’ll be.
- Keep a journal or timeline of your experience, including details of the impact that the injuries have had on your life. Make a record of nights you could not sleep due to pain. Write down the names of friends and relatives who helped you do chores you could not perform yourself because of your medical injury, noting the days they helped and the tasks they performed. Be sure to include as much information as you can about the suspected malpractice, including conflicting information that healthcare providers gave you about your condition.
- Contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney who can help you recover the compensation that you deserve.
It is important to obtain legal advice as soon as you realize that you or a family member may have been the victim of medical malpractice. If you wait too long, you will lose your right to seek compensation for your injuries or for the wrongful death of your spouse, child, or other family member.