We entrust psychiatrists to treat their patients, many of whom are vulnerable and unstable, with dignity and respect. And in the vast majority of cases, our trust is well placed. Regrettably, however, there are reports of psychiatrists who have physically or emotionally injured their patients, or even sexually exploited them. And while this behavior is patently unacceptable, one is realistically advised to consider both the upside and downside consequences of pursuing legal recourse when such behavior is suspected or even witnessed.
A good place to begin is to explore how psychiatric malpractice is legally defined. Essentially, psychiatric malpractice is a psychiatrist's misconduct or failure to exercise a professional level of skill expected in similar circumstances. For a psychiatric malpractice case to have a chance to prevail, four elements will need to be shown:
- There was a doctor-patient relationship.
- The psychiatrist breached his or her "duty of reasonable care", either through an act of negligence or by having practiced outside accepted occupational boundaries. For instance, professional psychiatry and psychotherapy never includes verbal sexual advances or any other kind of sexual contact, behavior, or stimulus.
- Harm was done. This obviously includes physical injury, but may include items such as memory loss or emotional injury.
- There was "proximate cause" for the harm. This means that the breach of duty was directly responsible for the injury. This is usually the most difficult element to prove. If a patient commits suicide, for instance, while the first three elements may be satisfied, it is often very difficult to prove that there was proximate cause.
The types of cases into which most claims can be classified include:
- Failure to diagnose or correctly diagnose the patient
- Failure to treat the patient properly
- Confidentiality issues including breach of privacy
- Abuses of the therapeutic process including sexual relations and physical or mental/emotional abuse
- Improper drug therapy/medication misdiagnosis
- Failure of duty to warn (may be brought by someone injured by the patient, can conflict with breach of privacy)
- False imprisonment
While psychiatric malpractice cases may often be difficult and/or expensive to prove, it is advisable to consult with an experienced psychiatric malpractice attorney if you suspect that your or a loved one's psychiatrist has abused their professional responsibilities. In addition to possibly recovering damages for your suffering, you may be helping weed out unscrupulous psychiatric practitioners.