Ending the Patient-Physician Relationship
Once a patient-physician relationship is begun, a physician generally is under both an ethical and legal obligation to provide services as long as the patient needs them. There may be times, however, when you may no longer be able to provide care. It may be that the patient is noncompliant, unreasonably demanding, threatening to you and/or your staff, or otherwise contributing to a breakdown in the patient-physician relationship. Or, it may be necessary to end the relationship simply due to relocation, retirement, or unanticipated termination by a managed care plan and/or employer.
Regardless of the situation, to avoid a claim of "patient abandonment," a physician must follow appropriate steps to terminate the patient-physician relationship. Abandonment is defined as the termination of a professional relationship between physician and patient at an unreasonable time and without giving the patient the chance to find an equally qualified replacement. To prove abandonment, the patient must show more than a simple termination of a patient-physician relationship. The plaintiff must prove that the physician ended the relationship at a critical stage of the patient's treatment without good reason or sufficient notice to allow the patient to find another physician, and the patient was injured as a result. Usually, expert evidence is required to establish whether termination in fact happened at a critical stage of treatment.
A physician who does not terminate the patient-physician relationship properly may also run afoul of ethical requirements. According to the AMA's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, a physician may not discontinue treatment of a patient as long as further treatment is medically indicated, without giving the patient reasonable notice and sufficient opportunity to make alternative arrangements for care. Further, the patient's failure to pay a bill does not end the relationship, as the relationship is based on fiduciary, rather than a financial responsibility. According to the AMA's Code of Medical Ethics, Opinion 8.115, physicians have the option of terminating the patient-physician relationship, but they must give sufficient notice of withdrawal to the relatives, or responsible friends and guardians to allow another physician to be secured.
Appropriate steps to terminate the patient-physician relationship typically include:
- Giving the patient written notice, preferably by certified mail, return receipt requested;
- Providing the patient with a brief explanation for terminating the relationship (this should be a valid reason, for instance non-compliance, failure to keep appointments.);
- Agreeing to continue to provide treatment and access to services for a reasonable period of time, such as 30 days, to allow a patient to secure care from another person (a physician may want to extend the period for emergency services);
- Providing resources and/or recommendations to help a patient locate another physician of like specialty; and
- Offering to transfer records to a newly-designated physician upon signed patient authorization to do so.
Following this protocol may be easier in some situations than others. For example, if a physician has signed a covenant-not-to-compete, chances are the employer will not hand over the patient list upon notice of departure. In instances such as these, you (in consultation with your attorney) may want to provide a model patient termination letter to the party withholding your patients' addresses, and request that the addresses and letter be merged for distribution to your patients. Ideally, you should not be in a contractual arrangement that makes contacting your patients difficult. However, if you find yourself in this situation, work with an attorney to ensure that appropriate steps are taken.