Professional Negligence vs. Malpractice: What’s the Difference?

Professionals have a responsibility to the people they serve to provide quality services and take a reasonable amount of care when performing their jobs. However, that’s not always what happens. If a professional neglects their responsibilities and harms someone, the person they hurt has a legal right to pursue compensation for their losses.

However, the exact rights a victim has depends on the circumstances involved in the incident. There is a significant difference between the damages that can be pursued if someone is harmed by professional negligence compared to medical malpractice. 

If you’ve been harmed by someone involved in your medical care, you may have experienced medical malpractice, professional negligence, or both. Below, we break down the difference between the two types of negligent care, how they may impact victims, and how to file the correct claim. 

What Is Professional Negligence?

Professional negligence is the act of failing to take the amount of care that a reasonable person in that profession would take in similar circumstances. Licensed professionals in any industry can commit professional negligence, including those in the medical field. This is also known as medical negligence.

Negligence is a purposefully broad term. It is intended to cover harm caused by mistakes that a professional should have been able to avoid by taking reasonable care. In the healthcare field, this could include issues like:

  • Accidentally nicking a nerve during surgery, injuring the patient.
  • Failing to notice a minor abnormality in a blood test results panel that might have led to an earlier diagnosis.
  • Writing off symptoms instead of ordering tests that may have identified a problem.

Negligence is more than just an accident, though. In general, professionals are not considered accountable for making an honest mistake that anyone in their field could have made. 

For an incident to meet the standards for medical negligence, it must:

  • Be the result of a failure to meet standards of care
  • Must be unintentional
  • Must cause the patient harm
  • This harm must lead to significant damages, such as healthcare bills or pain and suffering

If an accident doesn’t harm the patient, violate standards of care, or lead to ongoing damages, there are no grounds for a legal claim.  

What Is Medical Malpractice?

In contrast, medical malpractice is knowingly failing to meet the standard of care in the practitioner’s field. This term is narrower, and incidents must meet stricter criteria to be considered malpractice. Examples of malpractice in healthcare include:

  • Disregarding requirements to maintain an aseptic field when performing a procedure, causing an infection.
  • Ignoring protocols for patients experiencing chest pain and writing them off as drug seekers, misdiagnosing their heart attacks.
  • Failing to read a patient’s chart and prescribing them a medication to which they are allergic or giving the patient the wrong dosage.

You may notice these issues are more severe than those listed under negligence. This is for a good reason. Knowing violations of standards of care often lead to worse outcomes for patients and ongoing health and financial consequences. Medical malpractice is one of the most significant lawsuits that can be filed against a healthcare professional. 

Crossing the Line From Professional Negligence to Malpractice

So, where is the line between negligence and malpractice? It is often blurry. In fact, in California, both types of claims are grouped together

The deciding feature determining the type of claim is whether the practitioner committed the breach of the standard of care knowingly or accidentally. For example, consider a situation where an emergency room doctor misdiagnoses a heart attack. It may be considered negligence if the doctor listens to the patient’s complaints and performs an examination but genuinely misses a symptom that indicates a heart attack. In contrast, if the physician ignores the patient’s symptoms or refuses to perform an exam, it is likely to be malpractice. 

In some cases, particularly egregious unintentional accidents may also be considered malpractice. For example, performing surgery in the wrong location is likely to be considered malpractice due to the incredible lack of care demonstrated by healthcare workers. Even though the wrong-site surgery was accidental, disregarding the patient’s medical files and standard -pre-surgical procedures is so significant that the court will likely consider it intentional. 

So why does the difference between professional negligence and medical malpractice matter? It’s because the type of claim can significantly affect the kind of damages a victim can pursue for their losses. 

In both cases, victims can pursue damages such as:

  • Medical bills caused by trying to recover from the harm the incident caused.
  • Lost wages caused by the victim being unable to attend work while recovering from their injuries.
  • Funds to compensate the victim for the pain and suffering they face because of the incident. 

Because professional negligence is not intentional, this is typically the extent of the damages available to the victim. However, medical malpractice claims may also include punitive damages. The liable party must pay these additional funds as a punishment for ignoring their duty of care. 

Consult With an Experienced California Medical Malpractice Attorney

The difference between knowing and unknowing medical malpractice incidents may not always be clear, but it can significantly affect the outcome of a case. If you have been hurt by a medical professional, you do not need to fight alone. At the Law Offices of Michael Oran, APC, we are dedicated to helping our clients pursue fair compensation for their injuries. This includes advising you on how to file your claim to achieve the best possible outcome. Do not let confusion prevent you from holding negligent healthcare providers accountable for the harm they cause. Take action today by scheduling your consultation with our skilled medical malpractice attorneys and learning whether you have a claim.

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