Yes, psychiatrists can be sued for medical malpractice

Sunday November 25, 2018

Some people don’t think of psychiatrists as “doctors.” And when you think of medical malpractice, you think of a botched surgery, a childbirth tragedy or an undiagnosed tumor.

Psychiatrists are physicians and they can be sued for malpractice if their professional negligence causes lasting harm to a patient. Here’s a look at some of the ways that psychiatric malpractice may occur.

What might constitute psychiatrist malpractice?

A psychiatrist is an M.D. That means they obtained a medical school degree and served a residency, the same as a surgeon or any physician. They are bound by the same professional oaths and the by standards of their medical discipline. In a medical malpractice lawsuit, you have to prove that a doctor (1) deviated from the standard or breached the doctor-patient trust and (2) caused measurable and significant harm.

A recent article in Psychology Today lays out some examples of errors or misconduct that might be grounds for psychiatric malpractice:

  • Failing to prevent a patient’s suicide
  • Failing to diagnose a serious mental condition
  • Failing to warn individuals or law enforcement when their patient threatens bodily harm
  • Prescribing or administering medication without informed consent
  • Creating false memories of abuse
  • Ordering improper treatment, such as shock therapy
  • Engaging in sexual relations with a patient

A key component — what was the harm?

Misconduct or professional negligence does not automatically constitute malpractice. Having sex with a patient is forbidden because it breaches the doctor-patient trust. It would certainly result in sanctions against their medical license. But a malpractice lawsuit would have to show that the patient was not able to give consent because of their vulnerable state, and it would have to demonstrate the resulting harm, such as depression, panic attacks or self-harm.

In the case of failing to identify suicide risk, the wrongful death lawsuit would have to demonstrate what signs or steps the psychiatrist missed. In the case of improper medication or treatment, there must be evidence of physical injury or mental suffering. False memories would require estrangement from family or other adverse fallout, such as “deprogramming” therapy to undo the damage. And so on.

Every situation is unique. An attorney who handles medical malpractice can help to determine if there is a viable legal case for psychiatric malpractice.

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