Defining Malpractice During an Emergency Evacuation

Opinion.jpgThere’s an interesting case going on in Louisiana that’s pushing the limits of the definition of medical malpractice. For those of you that don’t know, the jurisdiction for medical malpractice in the United States is held by each state. That’s right, what is malpractice in California might not be malpractice in Texas.

In general, there is reasonable consensus about the definition of medical malpractice. For instance, if you operate on the wrong limb or the wrong patient, then most states will consider that malpractice. However, the more rare the situation, the more grey the definition becomes. For example, is it malpractice if your doctor fails to diagnose a very rare disease in you? Is it malpractice, if your doctor can’t see you and then you fall ill waiting for your next appointment?

Well, the issue at hand is whether failure to evacuate a patient during an emergency crisis is grounds for malpractice. In Louisiana, during Hurricane Katrina, a woman who was ventilator-dependent was unable to evacuate. Apparently, the hospital lost power and the backup generator failed due to the hurricane. The hospital attempted to evacuate as many patients as possible but this patient was not among them. She later died at the hospital.

The family has sued the hospital for medical malpractice.

I’m honestly a bit baffled about the case. I wasn’t there and I can’t imagine having to be in a natural disaster or emergency evacuation where decisions have to be made about who stays and who goes.

In one sense I do see the grievance. As soon as you step into a hospital, the hospital takes on huge liability for anything that happens to you while you are within their doors. Not only are you on the hospital’s property, but if you are admitted, you are within the care of medical professionals and they are on the hook for whatever happens that falls outside of proper medical management.

I will be honest and say that if there is an emergency that requires evacuation at my hospital, whether it be a hurricane or an act of terrorism, I will evacuate as many as possible and will evacuate those who are the most viable to survive if evacuated. I’m not saying one person’s life is worth more than other persons, but there is the principle of community beneficence where we must do what is best for the most people.

I’d be curious to see who thinks this is a legitimate grievance and who thinks that during a natural disaster, all bets are off.


Dr. JC is a medical doctor who has a passion for health promotion and education.
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