Medicolegal Sidebar: Resident Physician Liability

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It is rare for the US Supreme Court to weigh in on a legal case dealing with academic medical centers and physicians in training, but in 2011 the Supreme Court upheld a Treasury Department regulation that required academic medical centers to pay social security taxes on behalf of resident physician employees [6]. Teaching institutions such as the Mayo Clinic had argued for a tax exemption instead, reasoning that resident physicians were students, or trainees, rather than full-time employees.
Beyond deciding whether resident physicians are student-trainees or employees for tax purposes are the more complex and perplexing liability issues that can arise from medical malpractice committed by physicians in training.
In adjudicating medical errors made by resident physicians, one view is that it would be unfair to judge a resident to the same standards that apply to a physician or surgeon who is fully trained. The goal of residency training is to allow new doctors to gain knowledge and skill, without the fear of lawsuits. A contrasting view is that if a patient is injured by a resident who lacks knowledge and skill needed to properly manage a medical condition, then appropriate compensation should be provided.
While society has a practical interest in training new doctors, this training cannot come at the cost of patients’ lives or their health. These competing interests have shaped many legal rulings over the years. These rulings illustrate that the issues the courts must address when reviewing patient injury arising from alleged resident malpractice remain unsettled.
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