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Patient Rights (cont.)

Legal Principles in Medicine

One way to look at patients' rights is to view the legal implications that occur when patients' rights are violated. Torts, which are defined as civil injustices recognized as grounds for a lawsuit, are often involved in medical injury claims and malpractice claims. Negligence is the basis for the majority of claims involving medical issues in the United States. A civil negligence claim involves a plaintiff and a defendant.

In order to succeed in court, the plaintiff (the patient, in this case) must prove four elements in medical malpractice: (1) a preexisting duty, (2) a breach of duty, (3) damage, and (4) immediate cause.

  1. "Duty to treat" implies that the licensed physician agrees to practice medicine and accepts a patient for the purposes of medical treatment. In doing so, a physician-patient relationship is established and a contract to provide care exists. The physician owes each patient the duty to possess and to bring to bear on the patient's behalf that degree of knowledge, skill, and care usually exercised by reasonable and careful practitioners under similar circumstances, given the current medical knowledge and the available resources.
  2. Once a duty to treat has been established, the plaintiff must prove that a breach of duty has occurred. When a health professional fails to comply with minimum standards of his or her specialty, a breach of duty may exist. The physician is expected to act professionally according to the standard of care expected of the similarly trained, reasonable, careful professional under the same or similar circumstances. Unfortunately, the "standard of care" changes over time and frequently is not even clearly defined in many instances.
  3. After the plaintiff proves that a duty to treat exists and that a breach of duty occurred, he or she next has to prove that damage has occurred. Damage is demonstrated through personal loss, injury, or deterioration because of the physician's negligence. Without damage, negligence cannot be established. Damages may include physical and mental disability, pain and suffering, loss of income, present and future medical expenses and death.
  4. Causation is the last aspect of negligence. If a duty to treat exists, and the standard of care was not met, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant's breach of duty reasonably caused the plaintiff's damage.

In order for the plaintiff to prove negligence of the physician, all four of these components must exist at least in the opinion of a judge or jury that decides the outcome.

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