The relationship between a psychiatrist and their patient is extremely personal. Due to the personal nature of the relationship, if a psychiatrist makes an error or mistake in treatment, there can be significant consequences for the patient. As is the case with any type of doctor or health care professional, a psychiatrist could be held liable for medical malpractice should a mistake harm a patient.
With regards to the psychiatrist-patient relationship, there are three types of medical malpractice that are particularly relevant. These types are improper prescriptions, third party liability, and exploitation of the trust relationship.
Improper Prescriptions – When the incorrect medication or the wrong dosage of the correct medication is prescribed the consequences can be severe. This is the reason that all types of doctors are required to exercise care when they are prescribing drugs. If psychiatrist makes a prescription error, he or she could be held liable for any harm that the patient suffers as a result, provided that a reasonably competent doctor under similar circumstances would not have made the same mistake.
Third Party Liability – There are strict rules of confidentiality when it comes to a psychiatrist-patient relationship. Therefore if a psychiatrist believes that a patient will commit a crime, he or she is placed in a difficult position of deciding whether to inform the authorities or honor confidentiality. If a patient threatens to commit murder, and the psychiatrist believes that the patient will commit the act, but the psychiatrist chooses to honor confidentiality and the patient commits the murder, the victim’s family will likely be able to sue the psychiatrist.
Exploitation of the Trust Relationship – Unfortunately there are cases where a psychiatrist has taken advantage of his or her trust or power, and has crossed a line (such as sleeping with a patient). The psychiatrist in these cases has obviously broken many provisions of the code of ethics. However, they can also be liable for medical malpractice. It is the expectation of the patient that they will receive competent and professional conduct from their psychiatrist. If the psychiatrists conduct fails to meet that standard and, as a result, the patient is harmed (often in the form of emotional harm due to a breach in trust), the psychiatrist will be held liable. This can be true even when the patient consents to a sexual relationship.
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