Causation Is the Key to Proving Medical Negligence


Medical negligence occurs when a doctor or other medical professional, through their actions or inaction, leads a patient to some form of harm. Fortunately, these patients have some degree of legal protection; as long as they can prove that medical negligence has occurred, they’ll be entitled to compensation for the harm they endured, including the costs required to treat the injury or condition and additional funds to compensate for psychological and/or emotional damage.

But proving medical negligence can be tricky. For a case to be accepted, a patient must prove causation. In other words, they must prove that the medical professional’s unreasonable decisions were directly responsible for additional damage sustained.

Why Causation Is Important

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of bad medical advice or irresponsible surgery, it’s natural to feel frustrated at the difficulties of “proving” causation to demonstrate that medical negligence has occurred. But there’s a good reason why causation is so important; if any problematic medical care could immediately qualify as negligence, the number of claims would be enormous, and people would be disincentivized to pursue the profession. On top of that, the number of frivolous or baseless lawsuits filed would increase, putting unnecessary pressure on medical professionals trying to do an honest job.

The causational link ensures that only cases where a medical professional is undeniably responsible for a person’s injury or harm are seen through.

Why Causation Is Hard to Prove

Causation is, necessarily, hard to prove. But why is it so difficult?

There are many elements necessary to prove causation, and getting them all is challenging. You need verifiable evidence that a doctor did something or said something that led to harm, and not everyone keeps detailed records of their medical appointments. It’s also necessary to prove that the actions or advice were unwarranted, or otherwise went against best practices in medicine.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s necessary to demonstrate that the medical professional’s words or actions directly led to injury, made a condition worse, or otherwise led a patient to harm. “Harm” is hard to measure, and evaluations of certain conditions can be subjective. For example, if you’re dealing with an illness associated with chronic pain, and a doctor’s actions made your chronic pain worse, the “harm” is dependent largely on your subjective evaluations of your own pain levels.

Things get even more complicated when you consider the absence of treatment, or failure to diagnose a condition quickly enough. For example, if you aren’t diagnosed with cancer after a proactive screening with a physician, but the undetected cancer spreads and causes additional harm, how can you prove that the cancer wouldn’t have spread if the medical professional would have given you sound advice?

How to Prove Causation

If you find yourself needing to prove causation, there are a few distinct areas of evidence to pay attention to. First, you need to understand which actions or cases of inaction “count” as medical negligence, and find a way to document those cases. These can be any of the following, from virtually anyone in the medical profession (including physicians, specialists, nurses, dentists, etc.):

  • Direct action. Direct action is one of the easier types of medical negligence to prove, since it’s usually a result of a verifiable mistake, such as a surgery error or a bad prescription.
  • Direct advice. Direct advice, such as recommending an exercise regimen that makes your existing injury worse, is a bit harder to prove, since most patients don’t go out of their way to record a doctor’s exact words.
  • Failure to take action or provide advice. It’s even harder to prove that a doctor should have made a specific diagnosis or recommendation, but didn’t. This often requires the expert opinion of a similarly experienced professional (or multiple professionals).

You also need to prove that you were harmed:

  • Demonstrable injury. In the case of a surgical error or inappropriate treatment, you can visually show the damage done to you.
  • Demonstrable harm. You could also demonstrate that your illness or condition has noticeably worsened after receiving advice or treatment.

Finally, you need to illustrate the formal link between what the doctor said or did and what you experienced. This can be challenging, and often requires a medical opinion, such as knowledge of how a condition typically progresses under ideal circumstances.

If you’re ever in the unfortunate position of needing to prove medical negligence, make sure causation is in the back of your mind. Working with a lawyer can ensure you have a firm understanding of the structure of your case, and can help you prepare everything you need to demonstrate proof of causation. It’s vital to have professional advice, since cases can be won or lost based on the evidence you’re able to gather.

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