A psychiatrist is a M.D. and is, therefore, held to the same standards of practice as any other physician. A patient can take several avenues if they think their psychiatrist is guilty of malpractice but before anyone heads down that road, they need to understand what constitutes medical malpractice.
There is a difference between a ‘mal-occurrence’ and true medical malpractice. A patient may think they have been wronged or treated unjustly while under the care of their psychiatrist but that does not mean the doctor is guilty of malpractice. Legally, for a doctor to be found guilty of malpractice, the incident has to meet these criteria.
1. There must be a doctor-patient relationship – From the minute the doctor accepts you as a patient, this establishes a “doctor-patient” relationship. It is at this point that the psychiatrist assumes the duty of “reasonable care”.
2. The doctor has to breach the duty of “reasonable care”. – This means that if the psychiatrist has failed to exercise a degree of skill that would be reasonably expected of a doctor in similar circumstances, malpractice is considered.
3. Harm must have occurred – In psychiatric cases, this includes everything from emotional damage, adverse consequences from prescribing the wrong medicine, sexual abuse and suicide.
4. A causal link must be established between the negligence and the injury – In psychiatric cases this can sometimes be difficult to discern. There may have been harm, as in a suicide, but to prove the harm was caused by breach of duty and not by other intervening factors, can be challenging.
If after understanding these four criteria necessary for malpractice to have occurred, and it still appears as if that is the case, a patient has several options regarding what course to take.
1. Talk to the doctor – Approach your psychiatrist and express your concerns. Sometimes the cause of the perception that harm has been done is just a product of miscommunication.
2. Report the doctor to his employer or the administration of the hospital where he admits his patients. Hospitals, clinics and large group practices usually have a grievance process where patients can lodge complaints.
3. Contact your state licensing board – Each state has its own investigative process to review doctor’s conduct. This board has the power to take disciplinary action, including removal of the doctor’s medical license, if warranted.
4. Hire an attorney and file a lawsuit – This is usually the first option a patient considers after they feel they have been a victim of malpractice. Before this option is pursued, however, the patient must consider that lawsuits can be very expensive and can drag on for years. In psychiatric cases, the process can be more traumatic for the patient and the awards are rarely as high as in a medical malpractice case.
If malpractice is suspected, a patient can use any or all of these options to resolve the issue. Which avenue a patient chooses to pursue is sometimes not as important as it is for them to understand that they have the right to insist on being treated with respect and dignity.