When Are On-Call Doctors Liable for Medical Malpractice?

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Medical emergencies are unpredictable, and doctors can’t be on-call every waking moment of their lives. That said, patients want to know their on-call physicians are being responsible even if there isn’t an emergency right in front of them.

But in Indiana, there’s no state laws and few hospital regulations that specifically forbid doctors from having a few drinks while on call, and some may even arrive to see patients while still inebriated. Though not a crime in itself, this obviously makes many patients nervous and encourages doctors to keep secrets or lie about what they were doing before arriving at the hospital. It may even lead to medical malpractice.

Dangers of On-Call Alcohol Consumption

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Though both courts and hospitals are undecided on whether medical professionals should be allowed to drink while not on duty, public opinion and several medical critiques suggest this practice should be regulated if not banned outright.

Alcohol and drug use has lasting effects that can’t be turned off if the doctor in question suddenly has to see a patient. When they offer a medical service under the influence of alcohol, they increase the likelihood of making a simple mistake, like administering the wrong prescription dosage that harms the patient, rather than helping them.

It’s worth noting, however, that some physicians hold themselves to high standards, refraining from drinking alcohol no matter what the circumstances while they’re on call. But statistics show a startling percentage of medical students and professionals may see patients, offer treatment, and even perform procedures while under the influence.

Central to this debate is the status of on-call doctors; are they protected under personal privacy laws or is their behavior public concern?

Medical Malpractice Mistakes of On-Call Physicians

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Alcohol consumption isn’t the only danger inherent to relying on physicians who aren’t technically responsible for patients who may require their assistance. Perfectly sober doctors can fail to communicate, respond to requests too slowly, or even ignore a call to provide medical assistance.

Failing to Follow Hospital Rules

The landmark case setting the precedent for on-call doctors’ liability is Millard v. Corrado. In this case, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the victim’s harm was compounded due to the failure of the on-call doctor to tell the hospital he would be away and that another doctor would take his place as on-call physician. To make matters worse, the doctor on call wasn’t qualified to perform surgery in the hospital the victim was taken to, delaying her surgery and directly affecting her health.

The hospital in question had clearly stated rules that on-call physicians must notify scheduling staff if they plan to swap schedules with another doctor, and that those marked as on-call must respond within 30 minutes of being paged.

When on-call medical professionals fail to follow these simple rules, they put patients in danger and may cause direct harm. Millard was one of many cases to open the door for patients to hold on-call doctors liable for an increasing number of harmful situations, raising the bar for how they should act when on-call.

Help Filing a Medical Malpractice Claim

Not every medical complication is necessarily medical malpractice, but some doctors’ negligent behavior can be responsible for causing negligent harm. When let down by an on-call physician, you should know about your options under the law for seeking justice.

Hensley Legal Group’s medical malpractice attorneys can help you file a claim and navigate this complicated arena, advising you on how best to pursue legal action against a negligent on-call doctor. Call us or contact us online today for a free conversation about your case.