Ethics on Ending the Patient-Physician Relationship

Once you accept a patient into your practice, you are under an ethical and legal obligation to provide services to the patient 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.  

Regardless of the situation, you must avoid a claim of “patient abandonment.”  Abandonment is a tort, similar to negligence, 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.

There must be some harm from the abandonment.  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 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, and find himself before the medical board.  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 a fiduciary rather than a financial responsibility. 

According to the AMA’s Code of Medical Ethics, Opinion 8.115, you have the option of terminating the patient-physician relationship, but you must give sufficient notice of withdrawal to the patient, relatives, or responsible friends and guardians to allow another physician to be secured.

The Health Care District of Palm Beach County offers this advice regarding the appropriate steps to terminate the patient-physician relationship:

1. Giving the patient written notice, preferably by certified mail, return receipt requested;
2. Providing the patient with a brief explanation for terminating the relationship (this should be a valid reason, for instance non-compliance or failure to keep appointments);
3. 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);
4. Providing resources and/or recommendations to help a patient locate another physician of like specialty; and
5. 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.

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