Medical malpractice centers on a very important concept that the law refers to as the “standard of care.” Essentially, doctors and other medical personnel have a duty to provide each patient high-quality medical treatment based on the current standard of care. But what, exactly, is the current standard of care? And what happens when research disrupts the current standard of care? In other words, what happens when the medical community finds out that the standard practice in a given area is faulty? What happens if doctors eventually find that a commonly accepted medical practice causes harm?
Medical reversals happen when a common medical practice that the medical community has previously accepted is called into question. This typically happens when new data shows the practice to be ineffective or even harmful to patients. However, even after researchers report medical reversals, practical changes do not happen overnight. People, in general, are slow to change their beliefs. And doctors are no different than the rest of us in this regard. But when doctors are slow to change, they can harm their patients.
The Medical Standard of Care
As previously stated, doctors have a duty to perform their jobs in a way that meets or exceeds the current standard of care. So let’s look at exactly what that legal term means.
The standard of care is somewhat hypothetical. The term refers to how a reasonably competent health care provider, operating in a similar community, with similar training and knowledge would act in a given scenario. So if Joe sues Doctor A for malpractice, a jury must find Doctor A negligent before awarding Joe monetary compensation. To find Doctor A negligent, a jury would need to find that she breached her duty to treat her patient according to the current standard of care in the medical profession. So the question for the jury would be, Would a good doctor, given the same patient with the same or similar issues, have treated them as Doctor A did in this situation?
But what happens when the standard of care shifts? If research finds the standard treatment for a given disease is ineffective or harmful, when does liability kick in?
Information About Medical Reversals
Primary care physicians and other medical professionals treat an astonishingly wide array of ailments. Treating patients for this vast variety of conditions requires a broad base of medical knowledge. However, medical wisdom is constantly evolving. What a doctor learned in medical school 10 or 20 years ago may be utterly out of date. Subsequent studies may have proven that treatment protocols for certain illnesses actually result in harm. The medical and legal communities refer to this situation—where medical professionals implement a certain plan of treatment that randomized controlled trials (RCTs) later prove to be ineffective or harmful—as medical reversals. Let’s take a look at two medical reversals that have recently taken place.
One Example: Knee Pain
Millions of Americans suffer from knee pain. That pain can come from a meniscus tear, osteoarthritis of the knee, or a combination of the two. For patients with osteoarthritis, doctors typically recommend physical activity, low-impact exercises, and strength training to help with associated pain. However, doctors also treat hundreds of thousands of patients each year with more invasive procedures like corticosteroid injections and surgery.
Corticosteroid Injections for Osteoarthritis
An astoundingly high percentage of rheumatologists routinely use corticosteroid injections to treat osteoarthritis in the knee. The common theory over the last several decades begins with the understanding that osteoarthritis is an inflammatory condition. And since corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory, the prevailing medical wisdom has been that injecting these anti-inflammatory agents into the knee would alleviate pain. However, this assumption has not been borne out in randomized trials.
In one study, 140 patients suffering from osteoarthritis were split into two groups. One group received an injection of triamcinolone every 12 weeks for two years. The other group got a saline injection. And after two years, there was no difference in the pain experienced by subjects in one group over the other. So the only logical conclusion here is that the injections that doctors were administering to hundreds of thousands of patients each year resulted in no medical improvement whatsoever. In fact, the study found that the patients who got the triamcinolone injections experienced greater loss of critical knee cartilage than the control group, thereby making their ailment worse.
Meniscus Tears and Surgery
Doctors often treat meniscal tears with surgery. Doctors have long believed they must perform surgery to:
- Repair and remove loose areas of cartilage that has degenerated;
- Protect the knee from further damage; and
- Reduce pain and swelling.
In one randomized trial, patients suffering from meniscal tears were assigned either to undergo surgery with postoperative physical therapy or to complete a standardized physical therapy regimen alone. After undergoing this protocol for six months, the study found no difference in physical function scores between these two groups.
Researchers have performed more than these two studies into this phenomenon. But the collective results show that doctors have been performing unnecessary and even harmful procedures on patients with knee pain for several decades. Now we know that these patients would have been better off if invasive therapies had not been used.
Medical Reversals and Medical Malpractice
There are many, many more examples of medical reversals you can find in recent medical journals throughout America and the rest of the world. What these studies show us is that we do not know everything, and what we think we know might be wrong. The problem is that the medical community can be very slow to accept new information. Like most of us, doctors can be slow to admit that what they once believed in has now been proven to be harmful.
But doctors must keep up to date with current studies. They have a duty to you, their patient, to know if a treatment plan they have used on you can actually be causing more harm than good. If your doctor fails to accept and implement current medical discoveries and thereby causes you harm, you may have a case for medical malpractice.
We Can Assess Your Case
The injury attorneys at Batson Nolan PLC are here to help when you have been hurt. Medical reversals are a tricky area of personal injury law. The law cannot expect doctors to be clairvoyant and anticipate new discoveries before they happen. But it does expect doctors to know their area of expertise, keep up with the latest information, and adjust their treatment plans to coincide with the prevailing medical wisdom of the day. If you suspect that your doctor treated you with an outdated medical procedure, give us a call. You may or may not be correct, but with over 100 years of combined experience, our lawyers can assess your case and advise you regarding your next best move. So don’t delay. Call us today or contact us online to set up a free initial consultation.