What Is the Difference Between Medical Malpractice and Negligence?

Mistakes happen all the time; they are a part of life. However, when an error occurs in a medical setting, it could lead to severe complications and, in extreme cases, could even lead to death.  

Healthcare mistakes generally fall into one of two related categories: medical malpractice or medical negligence. The distinction between these two terms is subtle, but it is vital to understand the difference if you are involved in a lawsuit; either as a patient or a medical professional. There are specific steps for litigation and evidence requirements that you need to meet, depending on whether the incident qualifies as malpractice or negligence.


What Is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice occurs when a healthcare provider does not deliver adequate medical care or makes an error that results in severe consequences for a patient.  

Malpractice typically requires intent, but negligence can merely be a mistake. A doctor who commits malpractice does not have to intentionally injure a patient, but they have to be aware that they are making a mistake, deviating from accepted norms of care, or otherwise not providing proper care. Negligence can become malpractice if the provider tries to cover up their mistake after discovering it. 

An error that leads to patient problems or injury can fall into the malpractice category as long as it meets all four factors needed to file a malpractice lawsuit. However, negligence lawsuits require proof that the medical professional covered up their mistake once they became aware of it. 

What are the four factors that you need to have for medical malpractice? 

  • The healthcare providers owed a standard of care to patients. Medical professionals need to conform to a certain standard of care when they provide services in official settings, such as hospitals or clinics. Doctors giving advice in unofficial situations, such as a casual conversation, may not be liable for malpractice. 
  • They failed to provide a proper standard of care. If a doctor does not give a standard of care that a similar qualified medical professional would offer in a comparable situation, they could be liable for malpractice.
  • The mistake or lack of care causes an injury. If the patient experiences harm or an injury due to a provider’s actions, they can claim medical malpractice. If there was a mistake or negligence but no damage, a patient cannot make a malpractice claim. The burden is on the patient to prove that there was harm or injury caused by the provider. They also need to show that this injury would not have happened without the mistake.
  • There must be damaging consequences resulting from the injury. The patient must show that the harm or injury resulted in damage, such as enduring hardship, suffering, loss of income, disability, or chronic pain.

If a healthcare professional is found guilty of medical malpractice, they may be required to pay compensatory or punitive damages. Compensatory damages include mostly economic expenses, such as current and prospective bills and loss of income. 

Punitive damages are due when the defendant is found guilty of malicious misconduct. This additional money is a punishment on top of other funds that the doctor must pay. Medical professionals, clinics, and hospitals typically do not pay these damages out of their own pockets. Instead, they take out medical malpractice insurance, which provides liability coverage. 

Examples of Medical Malpractice

Examples of medical malpractice need to meet all four criteria in order to qualify for litigation. 

  • Misdiagnosis. A doctor may misdiagnose certain forms of cancer, such as mesothelioma, and, in doing so, fail to give the patient adequate time or instructions for necessary treatment. 
  • Unnecessary surgery. A physician who performs or orders surgery when less-invasive treatments are sufficient could be guilty of malpractice, especially if the surgery leads to damage or complications. 
  • Premature discharge. The other extreme involves letting a patient leave the hospital while they are still in need of care or still have a contagious disease. 
  • Failure to recognize symptoms. Though doctors can be wrong or operate within a margin of error when diagnosing complex medical conditions, they may be liable if they miss obvious symptoms and, therefore, miss the chance to properly treat a disease. 

Filing a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

You need to follow specific steps when filing a malpractice lawsuit. The burden of proving malpractice is on the patient in these cases.

The first step is to contact the medical professional involved. You can explain the issue and see if they can take steps to make things right. Sometimes, the provider will offer to rectify the situation to the best of their ability, and you will avoid a lawsuit or a settlement. It is a good idea to employ a lawyer to ensure that you get the services, treatments, or payments that you deserve. 

You will need to work with a malpractice lawyer to prepare your case. Preparation involves proving that the provider was in a situation where they had to meet standard-of-care requirements, that they were responsible for the mistake, and that the error caused significant damages to your health, life, or ability to earn a livelihood. 

Besides collecting evidence that shows lost wages, health issues, and other damages, you can schedule an expert witness, such as another medical professional. This person can testify about the extent of the injuries and explain the errors that the defendant made. 

Often, a skilled lawyer can help you settle a case outside of court. They can approach the healthcare provider and get them to pay damages to keep the case from going before a judge. 

What Is Medical Negligence?

Medical negligence is an act or omission by a medical professional that deviates from the accepted medical standard of care. To have a valid negligence case, you do not need to prove that the healthcare provider intended to be careless, merely that they did not meet standard-of-care requirements. 

Strictly speaking, medical negligence is one required legal component of a valid medical malpractice claim. For a medical negligence claim, you still need to prove that the physician’s mistake caused the injury and that the injury affected your health, income, or quality of life.

Examples of Medical Negligence

Medical negligence examples include incidents where the healthcare provider did not meet the minimum standard of care.

  • Improper dosage. A doctor who writes a prescription that does not account for the weight, age, or condition of a patient could be guilty of medical negligence. The medication would have to cause health issues for the patient to have a viable court case. 
  • Improper anesthesia administration. Complications or death caused by mismanagement of anesthesia medication or the inappropriate monitoring of a person under anesthesia could count as negligence. 
  • Negligence during childbirth. Mistakes made during birth that impact mother or baby’s health could be an example of medical negligence.

Filing a Medical Negligence Lawsuit 

The process for bringing a case of medical negligence against a healthcare provider is similar to a standard malpractice claim. 

As with malpractice, you need to prove that the provider had a duty of care, made a mistake, and caused significant damage because of their error. 

Negligence cases can sometimes include a whole institution, such as a clinic or hospital. You would need to bring the suit against the entire organization rather than an individual physician. Issues such as failing to provide a sterile environment could be an example of an institutional negligence case. 

Negligence cases require expert witnesses who can testify about the damage done to the patient and offer insight into the healthcare provider’s mistake.