The Doctor-Patient Relationship And Duty Of Care


Many Pennsylvanians go to their doctors’ offices, hospitals, or medical facilities to seek treatment for their medical conditions and injuries each year. While most doctors and other healthcare providers are competent professionals, some fail to meet the expected standard of care and negligently cause serious injuries or patient deaths.

Medical mistakes are much more common than most people realize. According to research published in the journal Studies in Health Technology and Informatics in 2017, medical errors cause an estimated 251,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, making them the third-leading cause of death. When people are injured or killed because of the negligence of their doctors or other medical providers, the victims or their surviving family members are entitled to pursue compensation through medical malpractice claims. To understand whether you might have a viable malpractice claim, you should understand the duty of care and what a doctor-patient relationship is as threshold matters. Here is some information from Raynes & Lawn to help you understand these concepts and how they apply to medical negligence lawsuits.

Elements Of A Malpractice Claim

You must be able to establish all four of the following elements to win a medical malpractice lawsuit:


  • A provider-patient relationship had been formed, giving rise to a duty of care.
  • The doctor’s treatment breached the expected standard of care.
  • The breach of the standard of care caused the patient’s injuries.
  • The doctor’s negligence caused the victim to suffer calculable losses.

You must be able to prove all of these elements by a preponderance of the evidence. If you cannot prove one of the elements, you will not be able to win your claim.

Proving The Doctor-Patient Relationship

Before you can pursue a medical malpractice claim, you must first have formed a doctor-patient relationship with the medical provider who provided your treatment. You cannot prove that a medical provider owed a legal duty of care to you without first proving that a doctor-patient relationship had been established.

The doctor-patient relationship is normally entered into by agreement. For example, you might go to a facility and ask for treatment, and the doctor there agrees to treat you. You will be given some forms to sign, and the doctor will then provide the treatment you requested. In some cases, a patient might be transported to the hospital while he or she is unconscious. Even though the patient is not conscious, a doctor-patient relationship will be established when the emergency room doctors provide care.

Proving The Doctor-Patient Relationship

By contrast, there are some situations in which a doctor-patient relationship will not exist. For example, if you overheard a doctor at a social gathering talking to someone else in casual conversation and then rely on what you overheard, you cannot pursue a medical malpractice claim against the doctor because you did not form a doctor-patient relationship. In that scenario, no relationship was formed because the doctor never agreed to treat you and didn’t provide any agreed-upon treatment. Proving that a doctor-patient relationship was formed is generally pretty straightforward.

Some of the types of evidence you might present to prove this element include the following:

  • Medical records showing the completed treatment course when the malpractice occurred
  • Informed consent documents signed by you and the doctor
  • Intake documents signed by you and the doctor
  • Treatment plans
  • Discharge paperwork

Showing records that prove the completed treatment course is critical. If you do not have these records, the doctor might claim that any relationship you formed ended before the malpractice occurred.

What Is A Duty Of Care?

Doctors are expected to provide treatment meeting the same level of care that would be provided by reasonably competent doctors with similar skills and expertise who practice in the same field and the same geographic area under the same treatment conditions. These standards of care vary based on the field of practice, any specialization, and the geographic area. For example, an oncologist in Philadelphia would be compared to other oncologists in the city instead of an oncologist in Kansas City, Missouri.

Every doctor takes an oath to live up to the expected standards of care that apply to them at the time they enter their professions. However, a doctor is not expected to adequately treat and diagnose serious health conditions outside of their fields of medicine. For example, a general practice doctor would not be held to the same standard of care for diagnosing a rare neurological condition as a neurologist would.

What Is A Duty Of Care?

Proving the expected standard of care requires the help of medical experts. Pennsylvania courts require medical malpractice plaintiffs to file certificates of merit with their lawsuits. These certifications are attestations that the claim has been reviewed by a medical expert who can opine that the doctor’s treatment fell below the expected standard of care and caused the plaintiff’s injuries and losses. These experts are doctors who share similar skills, certifications, specializations, and training as the allegedly negligent physicians.

Doctors must also communicate with patients and relay adequate information to them about the risks of their treatment.

The duty to inform includes the following:


  • Obtaining informed consent by explaining the reasonable risks of a course of treatment or procedure
  • Providing appropriate warnings to patients on a timely basis
  • Timely providing diagnoses
  • Disclosing information to patients about the potential consequences of treatment that could harm third parties

What Is A Breach Or Negligence?

After proving that you established a doctor-patient relationship and that there was a duty of care owed to you, you will need to present evidence demonstrating that the doctor’s care breached the standard of care. The breach of a standard of care is also called negligence. If your doctor provided treatment that fell below the expected standard of care and caused your injuries, you can pursue damages.

Some examples of the types of breaches that can amount to medical negligence include the following:


  • Prescribing the wrong medication or wrong dose
  • Administering the wrong drug
  • Failing to review a patient’s medical history and allergies before prescribing medications
  • Failing to accurately diagnose a health condition
  • Misdiagnosing a patient’s condition
  • Failing to order appropriate labs or imaging tests
  • Reading test results inaccurately
  • Discharging a patient from treatment prematurely
  • Failing to warn about known risks of a procedure
  • Wrong patient or wrong site surgeries
  • Leaving foreign objects behind in patients

Speak To The Attorneys At Raynes & Lawn

If you think that your injuries or your loved one’s death were caused by the negligence of a medical provider, you should speak to a medical negligence lawyer at Raynes & Lawn. Call us for a free consultation today at 1-800-535-1797.


For the general public:  This Blog/Website is made available by the law firm publisher, Raynes & Lawn, for educational purposes. It provides general information and a general understanding of the law but does not provide specific legal advice. By using this site, commenting on posts, or sending inquiries through the site or contact email, you confirm that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and the Blog/Website publisher. The Blog/Website should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

For attorneys:  This Blog/Website is informational in nature and is not a substitute for legal research or a consultation on specific matters pertaining to your clients.  Due to the dynamic nature of legal doctrines, what might be accurate one day may be inaccurate the next. As such, the contents of this blog must not be relied upon as a basis for arguments to a court or for your advice to clients without, again, further research or a consultation with our professionals.