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Duty of care is a critical element of medical malpractice claims

The actions of a doctor can help -- or sometimes hurt -- a person. When a patient is harmed, he or she may be entitled to compensation for the damages suffered if the doctor was negligent.

Two important questions will come up in a medical malpractice case. (1) Did the physician have a duty of care to the patient? (2) If so, did the physician meet the standard of care. These concepts are discussed in more detail below. If you think you might have a medical malpractice lawsuit, talk to an attorney who can determine if you have grounds to sue the doctor and/or the medical facility.

Professional relationship

In the United States, a doctor isn't obligated to provide medical services until that person has an established doctor-patient relationship. This relationship is not created simply by emailing a doctor about your medical problem or making an appointment. It is  requires a one-on-one consultation, exam or treatment. In the absence of that relationship, there is no duty of care and therefor basis for launching a medical malpractice lawsuit

A doctor-patient relationship is established when the doctor accepts the person as a patient. This is done when the doctor cares for the patient in an office, the emergency room, a clinic or another accepted location for medical care. Once a patient has an established relationship with a doctor, the doctor has a duty to care for that patient until the doctor or patient formally discontinues the relationship.

Duty of care limitations

There are limits to duty of care. This prevents doctors from having to remain on duty around the clock to help people who aren't their patients. For example, a doctor who is watching a movie in a theater has no duty to provide medical service to a person choking on popcorn. If the doctor does not help that person, the person can't sue the doctor for breach of duty. If the off-duty doctor does render aid, he or she would likely be immune from lawsuits under "Good Samaritan" laws. However, if the person chokes on popcorn in the doctor's office, the doctor would have a duty because the person is under his or her direct care.

Standard of care varies

The "standard of care" refers to the accepted protocols among medical peers. A doctor's standard of care varies with the circumstances. The standard of care depends on several factors, including the doctor's training and skill. Information given to the doctor when determining a diagnosis or treatment plan also matters.

The standard of care for a cardiologist who is treating a person with an enlarged heart would be much different than it would be for a general practitioner who is treating the same patient who complains of chest pains. This is one reason why doctors are likely to refer patients with serious health problems or suspected health problems to specialists for a diagnosis or treatment plan. In fact, that referral may be part of the standard of care.

When the duty of care is met but the standard of care is not met, the patient might suffer great harm. This can lead to other life impacts, such as financial difficulties and increased medical care needs. That in turn can lead to a medical malpractice lawsuit to recover compensation for the personal and financial hardships of the doctor's negligence or substandard care.

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