What Are Doctors’ Legal Obligations to Patients?

When you see a doctor, you expect them to use their knowledge and skills to help you feel better. You’re paying for their services the same way you would pay a painter to paint your house. 

But what if you don’t feel better after seeing a doctor? What if you feel worse? Can you demand a “refund” the same way you would if your painter decided to go rogue and paint your house hot pink?

Not exactly. It all comes down to what a doctor’s legal obligations to patients are. The law doesn’t expect them to be superheroes who miraculously save patients’ lives every time. But doctors do owe you two important things:

  • Care that meets the “medical standard of care”.
  • To do you “no harm”, and to not abuse your trust.

What is the “standard of care”? There’s no all-encompassing definition for it. And “harm” and “abusing trust” can each be defined in different ways. So you may need a medical negligence lawyer to help determine whether your doctor breached their legal obligation to you. 

Below, we’ll give you a general overview of the different legal duties involved in a patient-doctor relationship. We’ll also examine what kinds of circumstances might present grounds for a malpractice case. 

A Doctor’s Legal Obligations to Patients

Doctors have various legal obligations to their patients. These obligations are designed to ensure the well-being and safety of patients. They can vary by jurisdiction, but the most common ones include:

  1. Informed Consent. Doctors have to give you relevant information about your medical condition. They should discuss your treatment options, risks of procedures, and potential outcomes.
  2. Standard of Care. The medical standard of care isn’t the same for every single case. But in essence, it means your doctor should do what any competent doctor would do in similar circumstances. For example, if someone goes to the doctor with a broken bone, the standard of care might involve the doctor taking X-rays, setting the bone, and providing instructions for recovery. 
  3. Documentation and Confidentiality. Doctors have to keep detailed and organized medical records. They can’t share patient information without consent. 
  4. Care without Discrimination. Anti-discrimination laws say doctors can’t discriminate based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
Stethoscope and glasses resting on doctor's keyboard.

Examples of Medical Negligence

Medical negligence is when a doctor breaches their duty of care toward a patient. The breach can be accidental or purposeful. Doctors who cause injuries because they were negligent may have an obligation to pay damages to the victim. 

Doctors can fail to meet their legal obligations to patients in many ways. Here are some examples:

  • Giving them the wrong medication or the wrong dosage
  • Making the wrong diagnosis or failing to diagnose
  • Failing to inform them about the risks of a medical procedure
  • Refusing to treat someone because of their race
  • Discharging a patient before they’re stable
  • Using medical instruments incorrectly 
  • Making mistakes in surgery 
  • Ignoring a patient’s medical history 
  • Misinterpreting lab results
Doctor reviews results with patient.

What Happens When a Doctor Doesn’t Fulfill Legal Obligations?

If your doctor breached their legal duty of care toward you, you could have grounds to sue. 

But suing a doctor isn’t a simple process. You have to prove your doctor has breached their duty of care to you. So let’s take a look at what it takes to win a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Right from the start, there are two things you must prove:

  • Your doctor was treating you at the time you claim you were harmed
  • Your doctor violated the “standard of care” toward you

The Standard of Care

Proving that a doctor-patient relationship existed usually isn’t hard. However, if you were seeing many doctors around the time you were injured, doubt could be cast on who’s responsible. As for proving whether your doctor violated the standard of care, you’ll need: your medical records and testimony from an expert medical witness (usually someone with experience in the same field as your doctor). 

The expert medical witness can testify about what the standard of care should be in a case like yours. Your medical records can show proof of what actions your doctor did or didn’t take. Once you’ve shown what the standard of care should be in your case, you’ll then need to show how the doctor failed to meet the standard. The same expert witness can help with that. 

A Connection Between Your Doctor’s Actions & Your Injury

Next, you’ll show how the doctor’s failure led to your injuries. There has to be a clear connection between your doctor’s actions and your injury. For example, if a surgeon leaves a surgical instrument inside a patient’s body and the patient gets a life-threatening infection, that’s a clear connection.  

Many times the connection isn’t so clear. However, a qualified malpractice attorney can help you determine whether you have a valid case. If you’d like to speak with our expert lawyers, schedule your free consultation here