Standard of Care

The term “standard of care” refers to the reasonable degree of care a person should provide to another person, typically in a professional or medical setting. For example, standard of care in the case of a cancer patient could include a recommendation of chemotherapy or surgery.

If the doctor does not treat the patient to the best of his ability, then a court could find him negligent and guilty of malpractice for failing to provide an adequate standard of care. To explore this concept, consider the following standard of care definition.

Definition of Standard of Care


  1. The attention and care a person should reasonably provide to another person under the circumstances.


1125–1175         Frankish             (standard)

What is Standard of Care?

The term “standard of care” refers to the level of attentiveness and care that a certain person owes to another person under the circumstances. This generally refers to professionals, such as doctors, paramedics, lawyers, and others.

For example, standard of care when referring to an attorney means that the attorney should provide his client with an adequate amount of time and attention devoted specifically to that client’s case. If instead the attorney pays more attention to the client with the most money, then he may neglect his other clients’ cases and miss something important.

Professional Standard of Care

A professional standard of care applies to anyone in a professional role offering services to a client, patient, or customer. Typically, when discussing a professional standard of care, the two roles this most applies to are attorneys and doctors. These two professions govern themselves by a professional standard of care that, if violated, can subject them to lawsuits for malpractice.

Attorney Standard

An attorney standard refers to the idea that any reasonable attorney who has the same knowledge and skill as any other attorney in similar practice should take care in how he dispenses his advice and practices. The attorney standard holds that an attorney should not suffer punishment for making a simple error in judgment, so long as he believed that he was, in good faith, offering the proper advice and acting to help his client.

For example, the attorney standard sees that a lawyer who engages in fraud to “help” his client’s case has violated his standard of care. This is because he did not act in a way that another reasonable attorney would act in the same situation. This lawyer broke the law, rather than acting in good faith, and as such he subjected himself to punishment to the fullest extent under the law.

Medical Standard of Care

The medical standard of care is the standard required of doctors and other medical personnel. In other words, the medical standard of care refers to the idea that a doctor possessing the same knowledge and skills as any other doctor owes his patients the best possible treatment and care he can provide.

If there is a reasonable treatment option available and he does not pursue it, and the patient suffers as a result, then he may be subject to a lawsuit for neglecting him under the medical standard of care.

Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice is, in a nutshell, a form of negligence. Therefore, medical malpractice translates to mean that a doctor either did something wrong, or did not exercise reasonable care when treating a patient. Medical malpractice exists if another reasonable doctor in that doctor’s position would have treated the patient differently. Consider the following example, which better illustrates medical malpractice and the standard of care meaning:

Allison, an expectant mother, believes she is in labor, so she drives to the hospital. The attending doctor is in a rush, so she looks Allison over quickly, tells her she is only having Braxton-Hicks contractions, and sends her home.

Allison leaves the hospital, but upon arriving home, she realizes she is about to give birth. Her husband calls 9-1-1 and tries to help her deliver the baby, but the umbilical cord wraps around the baby’s neck. The baby has difficulty breathing, but when the EMTs arrive, they save the baby’s life. The ambulance then takes Allison and her baby to a different hospital for aftercare.

In this case, Allison has the right to sue the doctor at the first hospital for medical malpractice. The doctor sent her home when she was clearly in labor, and her baby nearly died as a result. Another doctor in this situation would have examined Allison more thoroughly, realized she was in labor, and made the necessary preparations to help her bring her baby into the world safely.

Examples of Standard of Care Mistakes

Unfortunately, failure to meet standard of care examples are rather common, especially in the medical field. Consider some of the horrifying standard of care examples of negligence that people sue doctors for all the time:

  • Misdiagnosis of a condition
  • Delayed diagnosis of a condition (thereby subjecting the patient to further suffering, and to seek appropriate treatment early)
  • Injuries incurred by the mother, fetus, or both during childbirth
  • Errors with regard to medication, surgery, or anesthesia

While some of these standard of care examples of mistakes occur in the doctor’s office, many can occur in the operating room as well. And, in some cases, if the doctor is negligent in, say, prescribing the right medication or ordering timely surgery, the patient may suffer worse effects from his condition or even die. In that case, his family can then sue the doctor and hospital for their loved one’s wrongful death.

Standard of Care Example Involving an Ophthalmologist

An example of standard of care coming before the U.S. Supreme Court is the matter of Helling v. Carey, heard in 1974. Here, Morrison Helling met with her ophthalmologists, Dr. Thomas Carey and Dr. Robert Laughlin, for several appointments related to problems with her vision, possibly related to glaucoma.

To diagnose glaucoma, there is a test that doctors must perform. However, the medical standard for the test is that doctors test patients who are over 40 years old. Because Helling was younger than 40 years old, the doctors did not test for the condition.

Years later, after consulting with other doctors, Helling received a diagnosis of glaucoma. She then sued Carey and Laughlin for negligence, alleging that their failure to diagnose her sooner caused permanent damage to her eye.

Decisions and Appeals

The trial court sided with the doctors, as did the Court of Appeals, so Helling brought her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court then had to decide whether the doctors could still be liable in this case, or whether they were following the appropriate medical standard of care.

Ultimately, the Court ruled in Helling’s favor for several reasons. First, the Court held that every individual deserves the same level of care as any other individual. Because Helling came to these doctors with symptoms of glaucoma, the age guideline in testing should not apply. Even though glaucoma only affects 1 in 25,000 people, if the symptoms were there, then the doctors should have tested for it.

Further, the Court added, because the test was easy enough to conduct, the doctors could have administered it and could have potentially prevented this permanent and life-altering condition.

In the Court’s Own Words

The U.S. Supreme Court ended up reversing the lower courts and remanded the case for a new trial limited only to damages. Specifically, the justices wrote:

“Under the facts of this case reasonable prudence required the timely giving of the pressure test to this plaintiff. The precaution of giving this test to detect the incidence of glaucoma to patients under 40 years of age is so imperative that irrespective of its disregard by the standards of the ophthalmology profession, it is the duty of the courts to say what is required to protect patients under 40 from the damaging results of glaucoma.

We therefore hold, as a matter of law, that the reasonable standard that should have been followed under the undisputed facts of this case was the timely giving of this simple, harmless pressure test to this plaintiff and that, in failing to do so, the defendants were negligent, which proximately resulted in the blindness sustained by the plaintiff for which the defendants are liable.

There are no disputed facts to submit to the jury on the issue of the defendants’ liability. Hence, a discussion of the plaintiff’s proposed instructions would be inconsequential in view of our disposition of the case.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Fraud – A false representation of fact, whether by words, conduct, or concealment, intended to deceive another.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.