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Who can be held liable for medical mistakes?

Going to the doctor should mean everything will get better. Whether going in for a routine check up or a specialist surgery, you expect that with some recovery time, rehabilitation and maybe some medicine, you will soon get back to your normal life.

Therefore, if things get worse instead of better after a visit to the doctor or a hospital stay, you may naturally feel betrayed. If you suffer further injury or complications, you may even start to suspect medical negligence played a role in your current condition. In that case, who may be held accountable for medical malpractice?

Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals

The most obvious culprit of a medical error is the actual physician, surgeon or specialist who completed your procedure or missed your true diagnosis. However, just because you experienced an adverse outcome does not mean your care team committed malpractice.

To prove your doctor acted negligently, you must be able to demonstrate that they failed to follow and uphold the approved standard of care for your particular procedure or diagnosis. In terms of your possible legal case, this means obtaining the opinion of independent expert medical witnesses who work in the same fields and disciplines as your health care team.

The hospital

Your hospital or your care team's health care employer may also be on the hook for your injuries. Hospital administrators are responsible for ensuring their employees – from the best surgeons down to nursing assistants and orderlies – are qualified to do the jobs they're hired to do. They must verify health care professionals' education and license to practice medicine before employing them, as well as investigate any past complaints, licensing issues or history of malpractice.

Hospital administrators must also make sure that staffing levels, hygiene and other standards of care at the hospital comply with local, federal and international regulations. For example, if the hospital where you stayed was experiencing a nursing shortage but had done did little to correct the problem, it may be held accountable if you suffered harm because a nurse could not respond to you in time.

Hospitals may also be held "vicariously liable" for malpractice committed by its employees. That means if your doctor, surgeon or nurse committed an otherwise preventable error, the hospital itself may also be held accountable. This is not true if the attending physician or health care professional is classified as an independent contractor, however.

Pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers

While rare in the context of medical malpractice cases, you may also seek compensation if your injuries or illness were caused by the negligence of drug or medical device manufacturers. Health care companies are notorious for pushing drugs and devices to market quickly for profit. If they rush a new medication or health care product to market without seeking proper approvals from the Food and Drug Administration or without notifying physicians about all possible risks, complications or side effects, they could be held legally and financially accountable.

Doctors too have the duty of care to know a patient's medical history thoroughly before prescribing new medications to avoid unnecessary complications. As "learned intermediaries," physicians are entrusted to know that what they prescribe or recommend for patients will not adversely affect them given their symptoms and medical history. So, in many cases, proving pharmaceutical negligence on the part of the actual drug company or manufacturer is difficult if it was actually the doctor or pharmacist's error that caused the patient further harm.

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