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Screening for cervical cancer: guidelines are only guidelines, P.2

In our last post, we spoke briefly about new guidelines released by the American College of Physicians that govern when health care providers should order screening for cervical cancer. The guidelines are an attempt to balance the risks associated with cancer screening with the obvious benefits of detecting cancer early on.

One thing that needs to be kept in mind is that guidelines are only guidelines, and that physicians have a duty to use their best judgment when caring for a patient. A physician who follows established guidelines concerning cancer screening isn’t immune from making mistakes in judgment. What matters are the particulars of the patient’s situation and the applicable standard of care. 

When a patient is harmed by a physician’s failure to screen for cancer and the patient seeks to put together a case for medical malpractice, nailing down the applicable standard of care is an important task. The standard of care may or may not be mirrored in a given set of cancer screening guidelines. Determining the standard of care is not always a straightforward matter, and there can be serious disputes over the issue at trial. Typically this involves a battle of the experts, with the patient and the physician calling forward expert witnesses saying different things.

Navigating standard of care issues is not something patients can do on their own, and working with an experienced attorney is important not only to help with substantive legal issues, but also with the various aspects of the legal process.

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