The relationship between patients and physicians is based on trust and should serve to promote patients’ well-being while respecting the dignity and rights of both patients and physicians.

Disrespectful, derogatory, or prejudiced language or conduct, or prejudiced requests for accommodation of personal preferences on the part of either patients or physicians can undermine trust and compromise the integrity of the patient-physician relationship. It can make individuals who themselves experience (or are members of populations that have experienced) prejudice reluctant to seek care as patients or to provide care as health care professionals, and create an environment that strains relationships among patients, physicians, and the health care team.

Trust can be established and maintained only when there is mutual respect. Therefore, in their interactions with patients, physicians should:

(a)  Recognize that disrespectful, derogatory, or prejudiced language or conduct can cause psychological harm to those who are targeted.

(b)  Always treat patients with compassion and respect.

(c)  Explore the reasons for which a patient behaves in disrespectful, derogatory, or prejudiced ways insofar as possible. Physicians should identify, appreciate, and address potentially treatable clinical conditions or personal experiences that influence patient behavior. Regardless of cause, when a patient’s behavior threatens the safety of health care personnel or other patients, steps should be taken to de-escalate or remove the threat.

(d)  Prioritize the goals of care when deciding whether to decline or accommodate a patient’s request for an alternative physician. Physicians should recognize that some requests for a concordant physician may be clinically useful or promote improved outcomes.

(e)  Within the limits of ethics guidance, trainees should not be expected to forgo valuable learning opportunities solely to accommodate prejudiced requests. 

(f)   Make patients aware that they are able to seek care from other sources if they persist in opposing treatment from the physician assigned. If patients require immediate care, inform them that, unless they exercise their right to leave, care will be provided by appropriately qualified staff independent of their expressed preference.

(g)  Terminate the patient-physician relationship only when the patient will not modify disrespectful, derogatory or prejudiced behavior that is within the patient’s control, in keeping with ethics guidance.

Physicians, especially those in leadership roles, should encourage the institutions with which they are affiliated to:

(h) Be mindful of the messages the institution conveys within and outside its walls by how it responds to prejudiced behavior by patients.

(i)   Educate staff, patients, and the community about the institution’s expectations for behavior.

(j)   Promote a safe and respectful working environment and formally set clear expectations for how disrespectful, derogatory, or prejudiced behavior by patients will be managed.

(k)  Clearly and openly support physicians, trainees, and facility personnel who experience prejudiced behavior and discrimination by patients, including allowing physicians, trainees, and facility personnel to decline to care for those patients, without penalty, who have exhibited discriminatory behavior specifically toward them.

(l)   Collect data regarding incidents of discrimination by patients and their effects on physicians and facility personnel on an ongoing basis and seek to improve how incidents are addressed to better meet the needs of patients, physicians, other facility personnel, and the community.

AMA Principles of Medical Ethics: I, II,VI, IX

Code of Medical Ethics: Patient-Physician Relationships

Visit the Ethics main page to access additional Opinions, the Principles of Medical Ethics and more information about the Code of Medical Ethics.

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