In legal cases, a term regularly shows up: “standard of care”. It is talked about, defined and ruled on by the court. In many state statutes, the term is defined as something similar to: “that level of care, skill, and treatment which, in light of all relevant surrounding circumstances, is recognized as acceptable and appropriate by reasonably prudent similar health care providers.”
What is the standard of care in its most basic terms?
If I am a pedestrian, do I have a “standard of care” as I walk along the street? Of course I do. I must watch the pavement as I am walking so as not to trip over obvious hazards. If I come upon a blocked area of the sidewalk, where work is being done for example, I have the duty to navigate carefully and as safely as I can around that hazard in continuing my walk. I have a duty to avoid running into other pedestrians using the sidewalk. If I must cross the street, I have a number of additional duties I must fulfill.
Why do we have “duties” and “standards” by which we must act? Without them, no one would know what was expected of them and we would not be able to anticipate how to expect others to conduct themselves in given situations.
A car is traveling down a dark, deserted country road, approaching an intersection with a stop sign. The car does not stop at the stop sign and, instead travels through it at highway speed. No other cars were approaching the intersection at the time. Was the driver negligent? Did the driver deviate from the reasonable standard of care? The driver was negligent, but, luckily, caused no damage to anyone. So, if a police officer was around, a ticket would be issued, but nothing further. So, was it excusable, since no one was hurt? Absolutely not. The same example, but the approaching driver does not see an approaching motorcycle. The motorcyclist is struck and killed. A completely different set of circumstances results, but culminate from the exact same perceptions on the part of the driver in the car. In both situations, the driver “honestly” saw no harm by running the stop sign.
This is particularly true for professionals. The public absolutely must be able to depend on certain standards of performance from professionals. For an engineer who constructs a bridge, we expect that the bridge will carry the weight reasonably expected and will not collapse with that weight. We expect that the professional will act in a manner expected from other similar professionals.
When a doctor decides to treat people, she decides to work within a reasonable standard of care accepted by other physicians. Does that mean if a physician or other professional makes a mistake that they have deviated from the acceptable standard of care? Not necessarily. It means that the professional is obliged to act reasonably as judged by similar health care providers.
If a patient arrives at the hospital with symptoms consistent with 3 or 4 different potential illnesses, it is the job of any physician to determine those illnesses, which are life threatening and try to eliminate or include those first. If the condition could be life threatening, the professional is obligated to continue their investigation until they can determine what course of treatment is best for the patient.
Physicians, like any professional, have pressures extraneous to their profession. In the case, of an engineer, it may be cost overruns and their client may be pushing to cut corners somewhere to minimize those cost overruns. With physicians, it may be a hospital or insurance company. It is the job accepted by the any professional to comply with the reasonable standard of care. In the case of physicians, it is to determine those patients who require hospitalization in order to determine their illness and those who do not need hospital care.
Professionals are required to reach reasonable, well thought, courses of action within their profession. They typically go through additional schooling to prepare them for evaluating a reasonable course of action. The subject of a professional’s decision may seem complex, but their standard of care is no less real than the driver or pedestrian.