Standard of Care

patient and doctor with stethoscope
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What Do We Mean by of Standard of Care?

Is the medical care provided by your doctor in compliance with what other providers in his specialty do for their patients in the same circumstances? Does he follow evidence-based consensus statements or clinical practice guidelines? These questions show two sides of the definition of standard of care in the medical setting.

Legal Definition of Standard of Care for Malpractice

In legal terms, a standard of care is used as the benchmark against a doctor's actual work.

For example, in a malpractice lawsuit, the doctor's lawyers would want to prove that the doctor's actions were aligned with the standard of care. The plaintiff's lawyers would want to show how a doctor violated the accepted standard of care and was therefore negligent. What constitutes the standard of care will change from community to community as well as evolve over time.

But the standard of care in legal settings is not written down, it is provided by testimony by expert witnesses. The physician only has to meet the test that he provided the care that a minimally competent physician would have done in the same situation and given the same resources. He doesn't have to rise above that standard to be acquitted of malpractice. Either side of a malpractice case may point to clinical practice guidelines and consensus statements, but these do not definitively judge whether the defendant failed to provide the standard of care.

If you believe you did not receive treatment that met the standard of care, your legal team needs to research how the care you received failed to meet the minimal competence level.

Standards of Care

A standard of care can also refer to informal or formal guidelines that are generally accepted in the medical community for treatment of a disease or condition.

It may be developed by a specialist society or organization and the title of standard of care awarded at their own discretion.  It can be a clinical practice guideline, a formal diagnostic and treatment process a doctor will follow for a patient with a certain set of symptoms or a specific illness. That standard will follow guidelines and protocols that experts would agree with as most appropriate, also called "best practice." Standards of care are developed in a number of ways: Sometimes they are simply developed over time, and in other cases, they are the result of clinical trial findings. 

Clinical practice guidelines are collated by the National Guideline Clearinghouse. This allows access by physicians to stay current on what the standard of care is for their area. A standard of care in one community will not necessarily be the same standard in another. Further, one doctor's standard can vary from another doctor's.

If you want to research the clinical practice guidelines for a disease, condition, treatment or intervention or for health services administration, you can browse them online at

The web site is maintained by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

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