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Doctors are generally subject to two types of punishment for misconduct: disciplinary hearings held by state regulatory boards and general personal injury lawsuits brought by unsatisfied patients.

Medical doctors and other healthcare professionals are typically regulated by state law rather than federal law. These state laws dictate the type and amount of training a doctor must receive prior to obtaining a license to practice medicine. Additionally, many states have disciplinary boards that hear complaints regarding doctor misconduct. These boards may impose fines, require public or private reprimands, probationary periods, suspensions, and expulsions from the practice of medicine. However, the consumer activist group Public Citizen reports that less than one-third of doctors cited for medical incompetence actually have their licenses revoked or suspended. Disciplinary action taken by regulatory boards is meant to punish the physician rather than compensate the injured patient.

As opposed to regulatory board proceedings, personal injury lawsuits known as medical malpractice actions serve as vehicles to compensate the inured patient. By their very nature these suits are private actions (taken by the injured patient or the injured patient’s family) rather than government actions initiated through regulatory boards.

Under certain circumstances a doctor may be liable for misdiagnosing a disease or condition. As with all medical malpractice suits based on negligence, the injured party will have to prove that the doctor had a duty to discover the illness, then failed to discover the illness (breached his duty), and that such failure caused injury or death. Some judges have even allowed suits to go forward when the doctor’s misdiagnosis was only partly to blame for the subsequent injury or death. For instance, a judge has held a doctor liable for failing to discover his patient’s lung cancer during the patient’s first office visit. In Herskovits v. Group Health the patient visited his doctor complaining of severe cough. The doctor gave the patient cough medicine. One year later the patient returned to the doctor with the same symptoms. This time the doctor correctly diagnosed the cough as lung cancer. While the patient had cancer during the first visit to the doctor, the doctor’s failure to discover the cancer at that time reduced the patient’s chance for survival by 14%. This 14% reduction in the survival rate was enough for the court to decide that the doctor’s “late” diagnosis may have caused the patient’s subsequent death. The patient had lost a significant chance at survival because of his doctor’s error.

Medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, and medical technicians are human. Humans make mistakes. However, in our increasingly hectic society, one in which profit sometimes trumps quality healthcare, medical professionals are prone to make more mistakes than ever. While many errors may have minor consequences, some result in much more serious complications. . . The doctor who neglects to order a refill of the patient’s intravenous bag with life sustaining medication. Major consequence. The surgeon who leaves a sponge inside the patient. Major consequence. The surgeon who amputates the patient’s right leg when it is the left leg that is infected and scheduled for removal. Major consequence. The physician who prescribes two drugs that if taken together can be fatal. Major consequence. While these errors are understandable, as they are made by human beings, they are nevertheless unacceptable.

The medical community calls such mistakes “adverse events.” Studies have shown that only one in eight victims of such “adverse events” files suit for compensation. Failure to litigate these medical malpractice claims will only perpetuate this flawed system.

If you or a loved one have been victimized by a careless doctor, it may be important to contact an attorney who can help protect your legal rights. Please keep in mind that there may be time limits within which you must commence suit.