Understanding Standard of Care for Patients

patient and doctor with stethoscope

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Is the medical care provided by your healthcare provider 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 the standard of care in the medical setting.

Legal Definition

In legal terms, a standard of care is used as the benchmark against a healthcare provider's actual work. For example, in a malpractice lawsuit, the healthcare provider's lawyers would want to prove that the practitioner's actions were aligned with the standard of care. The plaintiff's lawyers would want to show how a healthcare provider 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 the testimony of expert witnesses. The healthcare provider only has to meet the test that he provided the care that a minimally competent healthcare provider 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 competency 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 the 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 healthcare provider 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 healthcare providers 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 healthcare provider's standard can vary from another healthcare provider's standard.

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 on a website that is maintained by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Oberman M. The sticky standard of care. Hastings Cent Rep. 2017;47(6):25-26. doi: 10.1002/hast.782

  3. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Clinical guidelines and recommendations.

  4. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Guidelines and measures updates.

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.