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The Standard of Care: When the Legal System Steps In

Physician liability in a medical malpractice case is determined by assessing whether medical care meets the “standard of care.” Legal standards of care are derived from various sources including common law, state statutes, federal and state agencies, and professional ethics.[1]


Unlike other negligence cases, physician defendants are not judged against “reasonableness” standards, or what a reasonable person would have done in similar circumstances. Because of the unique specialized knowledge possessed by physicians, the medical profession controls the standard of care by shifting from the prescriptive “reasonableness” care standard used in legal negligence to the descriptive standard of the care that physicians customarily provide.[2]


The standard of care to which doctors are held accountable is the customary care adhered to by practicing physicians. The law requires a medical malpractice plaintiff to define the standard of care, present evidence showing that the physician breached the standard of care, and causally link the breach to patient’s injuries.[3] Legally, the medical standard of care is the degree of skill, knowledge, and care that would ordinarily be exercised by an average physician in similar circumstances.[4] This legal standard definition coincides with that of