(This column is the second in a three-part series.)
Question: A penicillin-allergic patient died from massive hemolysis after receiving the antibiotic ceftriaxone (Rocephin). The plaintiff alleged that the defendant was grossly negligent in administering the drug and subsequently refusing to treat or to readmit the decedent.
If this case is referred to the state’s medical board, which of the following statements is best?
A. The outcome depends on the jurisdiction.
B. Substandard medical care is not part of professional misconduct, which is what a medical board is supposed to look at.
C. Disciplinary action requires a simple showing of ordinary negligence.
D. Disciplinary action requires more than one act of ordinary negligence.
E. Disciplinary action requires proof of gross negligence.
Answer: A. Under the Medical Practice Act, each state authorizes its medical board to issue licenses and regulate physician practice. Professional misconduct is about unprofessional behavior, and covers both ethical breach and substandard care.
Medical boards do not typically adjudicate single acts of ordinary negligence, leaving them instead to the tort system and civil lawsuits. However, grossly culpable misconduct – even in a single instance – or a recurring pattern of ordinary negligence can come under medical board review. And it is common practice for boards to use malpractice data as a tool to trigger further investigations, such as a certain number of malpractice settlements over a given span of time.
States vary somewhat over when to investigate a complaint of alleged substandard practice. In California, the term “unprofessional conduct” is codified under section 2234 of the California Business and Professions Code, and the errant doctor is subject to disciplinary sanction if there is gross negligence, repeated negligent acts (defined as two or more negligent acts or omissions), or incompetence.
In Hawaii, the disciplinary law is set up under Hawaii Revised Statutes section 453-8, which lists 15 situations of wrongdoing. In the malpractice category, Hawaii’s law uses the terms hazardous misconduct, hazardous negligence, incompetence, or multiple instances of negligence.
The state of New York defines professional misconduct by reference to a comprehensive list of 49 categories under section 6530, which include gross incompetence or gross negligence on a single occasion, or negligence or incompetence on more than one occasion.
However, Maryland is an example of a jurisdiction that does not require gross or repeated negligence; the state considers any failure to meet the appropriate medical standards as professional misconduct.1
But what constitutes gross negligence?
The vast majority of medical malpractice lawsuits allege ordinary, not gross negligence. Ordinary negligence is a well-defined legal term, as illustrated in Prosser’s Textbook on Torts: “The formula under which this usually is put to the jury is that the doctor must have and use the knowledge, skill, and care ordinarily possessed and employed by members of the profession in good standing.”2
In contrast, there is no universal definition for the term gross negligence. Everyone recognizes it denotes a greater degree of culpability than ordinary negligence, but how much greater?
According to the California Supreme Court, gross negligence may be said to be “the want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”3 The law in Texas stipulates: “Gross negligence means more than momentary thoughtlessness, inadvertence, or error of judgment. It means an entire want of care as to establish that the act or omission was the result of actual, conscious indifference to the rights, safety, and welfare of the person affected.”4
Examples in case law of gross negligence (or where punitive damages were awarded, which usually signify egregious conduct) include a doctor’s wanton failure to provide follow-up care for a child who developed fever and gangrenous toes following foot surgery,5 the prescription of an excessive number of birth control pills (more than 1,000 pills within a time period when less than 200 were sufficient) with resulting liver complications,6 and leaving behind a 6.5-inch clamp in a surgical incision.7
On the other hand, a Connecticut court (which decided the case in the hypothetical above) ruled that, under the facts, the defendant’s conduct did not meet the high threshold of egregiousness that defines gross negligence.8
As in any malpractice lawsuit, a medical board investigation involves determining whether the accused physician has met the standard of care in his or her specialty, and boards usually look to expert community physicians to articulate that requisite standard.
Compared with a civil lawsuit, a disciplinary hearing has the physician at a disadvantage. Medical board complaints are easier to file; the complaining party does not need an attorney; impartial expert witnesses are the responsibility of the board, not the complainant; and no patient injury needs to be shown.