Best intentions


Our college has a teaching hospital, with med students. In these days of ObamaCare, if a student makes a mistake, who is liable?

This question highlights a harsh reality of any educational program. Who is liable when a student practitioner makes a mistake? Surely the most serious error occurs in a hospital environment, with students training for medicine, nursing and physical therapy. Examples of people being injured, not only physically, extend to other disciplines. A law student may give poor advice in a legal clinic. A student teacher is working with children and an injury occurs. Lawyers see liability and monetary awards from these situations. However, this also has a negative impact on the working relationship among the university, teachers and students. We look at the issue that garners the most attention, medical liability.

It is unlikely that medical students will be held liable for mistakes made that result in harm to a patient while working at a hospital. Usually the physicians are held liable for any mistakes made by their students and interns, and under indirect liability the hospital may even be held ultimately responsible.

Hospitals, which are private corporations or public entities, can be held solely liable for medical malpractice when lawsuits are filed. Nearly all of them take on medical students and interns regularly. Medical classes are taught where students are allowed to oversee medical practices and surgical procedures as well as accompany physicians to observe patients and their ailments.

Graduation from medical school requires a number of hours hands-on experience in a hospital. Students are supervised and precautions are taken, but hospitals do not have the resources for constant direction so on occasion a student may be left alone with patients. In nearly all circumstances, any treatments administered by a medical student must be endorsed by a doctor so mistakes are a rarity. If the unfortunate does happen, then the physician is usually held liable.

Negligent supervision is one of the most common reasons lawsuits are filed under medical malpractice following a mistake made by a student. Errors can occur when doctors are too busy with their own patients to effectively monitor students. If you are multiple students at any one time, it is impossible to personally oversee all of them at all times.

While teaching hospitals offer some of the best care in the country, they often suffer with high turnover rates. Students change disciplines, rotate between medical specialties and even leave the program. This makes it a greater challenge to effectively train and supervise them all of the time. Mistakes will happen when students have varying levels of experience and training but with limited monitoring. Liability typically occurs at night when students have less supervision, due to budgetary constraints at the hospital.

Negligence does not only apply to physicians, but nurses and therapists can make a misdiagnosis, fail to respond in a timely manner, or administer the wrong prescription. The key point is that these are all qualified and licensed medical practitioners and students are not. The former can be held liable, as can the hospital, but rarely the student, as they are not licensed medical professionals.

Doctors are great, as long as you don’t need them… Edward E. Rosenbaum.

Written by Jacob Maslow, founder and editor of Legal Scoops.

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