There is a mistaken belief that a patient’s pre-existing condition somehow protects doctors from claims of medical malpractice. It seems logical – it would be harder to prove a doctor’s mistake is the reason for a patient’s downturn or untimely death if the patient already suffered from a serious medical condition.

This is not always the case, however. Even in a patient is already incapacitated or in serious pain, it is possible for the doctor’s negligence to make the issue worse. And if that happens, there may be cause to pursue a lawsuit.

What was the cause?

There are two key pieces to considering these types of medical malpractice claims. The first is demonstrating that a doctor’s decision – not the pre-existing condition – was the cause of the new complication.

To determine this, the law considers the standard of care. In general terms, standard of care is what a “minimally competent physician” would reasonably do with the same tools and in the same situation. That could be applied to the initial diagnosis, the treatment plan or any surgical procedures.

Failing to meet the standard of care means a doctor may be considered negligent in their duties.

Did it make the patient’s life worse?

The second key piece to consider is, did the error result in the patient’s life becoming worse, or hasten the patient’s death?

For example, let’s say a patient has a painful shoulder with poor mobility, and their doctor suggests surgery. During the operation, the surgeon makes a mistake and the shoulder becomes less mobile or more painful.

Yes, the patient had a pre-existing condition. And yes, there is no guarantee that surgery will improve life. But if the doctor’s error directly aggravated the shoulder issues or caused that condition of the shoulder to worsen, that might constitute medical malpractice. The same holds true for heart problems or any health conditions. The fact that a person is already suffering from an illness or impairment does not let physicians off the hook.

An unsuccessful treatment is not necessarily malpractice

It’s important to keep in mind that an unsuccessful treatment does not automatically mean malpractice. A doctor can follow the standard of care yet the patient’s condition may not improve. A doctor can do everything right yet the patient takes a dramatic turn for the worse. For malpractice, there must be a doctor’s error or omission that directly caused harm to the patient.

A pre-existing condition is not necessarily a barrier

All cases are different, which is why it’s important to talk to an attorney if you’re considering a medical malpractice lawsuit. They can walk you through the legalities and help you try to get a better understanding of the issue. If a medical mistake made your life worse or led to a loved one’s wrongful death, don’t assume a pre-existing condition automatically prevents you from pursuing rightful compensation for your suffering.