When medical students make mistakes that result in patient injuries, they may be held responsible for damages if injuries are caused by negligent actions. In most cases, however, physicians are held liable for the mistakes of their students. Under vicarious liability, hospitals may also be held accountable.
Can Medical Students be Sued for Patient Injuries?
Hospitals are responsible for patient injuries and fatalities caused by the negligence of their medical staff, medical students, and interns. Although medical students can be sued for medical malpractice, most lawsuits are filed against the attending physician who is responsible for the patient’s care. In some cases, medical malpractice lawyers help victims file lawsuits against students, physicians, and hospitals.
Many hospitals provide liability insurance for their medical students to cover legal defense costs and damage awards, if a medical malpractice lawsuit is filed. Insurance coverage is limited to specified policy amounts. If a student’s liability exceeds policy limits, the student may be held personally liable for the difference. To be covered under this type of insurance, students must only perform medical activities that are within the scope of their education and training and be under the supervision of a hospital resident or physician.
In the U. S., most hospitals regularly staff medical students and interns who attend classes, go on daily rotations with physicians, and observe patient procedures. As a requirement for graduation from medical school, students and interns must complete a certain number of years of hands-on experience in a hospital setting. Although medical students can visit patients, note charts, and perform minor procedures, most are under the supervision of a licensed physician who must sign off on student clinical activities.
High student turnover rates make it more difficult for hospitals and physicians to closely monitor clinical student activities. With limited monitoring and rigorous training schedules, medical student errors are likely to happen.
As part of their training, medical students are expected to learn and perform basic patient care functions. These include visiting and talking to patients, taking a patient’s medical history, conducting a physical examination, and performing certain procedures such as taking temperatures, inserting IV tubes and catheters, applying surgical dressings, splints and casts, doing skin tests, giving injections, and performing minor surgical procedures. To avoid medical malpractice liability, medical students must be aware of their medical skills and limits and work closely under an attending physician while performing clinical procedures on patients.
- Identification Tags – Medical students who work with patients should always wear name tags that identify them as a medical student. Patient’s have the right to know that they are receiving treatment from a student rather than a resident or physician.
- Patient Charts – Medical students are often asked to make notations concerning a patient’s condition in the patient’s chart. The medical student should always identify himself/herself as a medical student when signing the notation.
- Writing Orders – Medical students commonly write orders on patients they observe in a clinical setting. Patient orders should always be signed by the medical student and a supervising physician to reduce the risk of liability, if the patient suffers harm as a result of the order.
- Patient Consent – Obtaining informed consent is essential for treatments and procedures that pose risks to patients. Although medical students are often involved in the process, a supervising resident or physician should always be present.
- Performing Procedures – To avoid liability, medical students should avoid performing invasive procedures, major surgeries, and injections of toxic medications unless they are under the direct supervision of a resident or physician.
When Medical Errors Occur
Regardless of education, training and skill level, medical students do make errors during their clinical rotations. When mistakes happen, students should disclose them to their supervising resident or physician. The attending resident or physician should then disclose the information to the patient. Unfortunately, many students and physicians either do not catch medical mistakes, or they do not disclose them to patients. This behavior often results in medical malpractice lawsuits by patients.
Illinois law looks at the standard for patient care to determine negligence. The law takes into account the patient’s health prior to treatment, the specifics of the patient’s illness or condition, and the patient’s age. Any violation of the standard of care may constitute medical negligence that is grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit. In Illinois, a patient has up to two years from the date the injury occurred or the date the patient first knew of the injury to file a lawsuit. Wrongful death lawsuits fall under a different two-year statute of limitations that starts on the date of the patient’s death.