When a patient is under a physician’s care and that physician abruptly terminates the provider/patient relationship without reasonable notice or excuse, and fails to give the patient adequate opportunity to find a qualified replacement provider, that can constitute medical malpractice called patient abandonment—that is if the patient suffers a worsening of their condition or further harm as a result.
Patient abandonment can and does happen. And as such, it is very important to understand the elements that define patient abandonment in a medical treatment setting. Of course, every case is different and the designation of medical malpractice hinges on a very specific set of circumstances. However, it is common that in these cases: (1) the doctor-patient relationship is established. The physician has agreed to treat the patient and is in fact in the process of treating the patient in question; (2) the abandonment takes place when the patient is in need of medical attention. This is commonly known as a “critical stage” of the treatment process; (3) the abandonment has taken place abruptly and the patient did not have enough time and resources to locate a suitable physician sufficient to avoid a lapse in treatment for their condition; and (4) the patient has suffered harm as a direct result of the patient abandonment.
There are several situations that could constitute patient abandonment. If a physician is unavailable during an unreasonable amount of time and the patient suffers harm as a result of restricted access to treatment, that may be considered patient abandonment. Also, if a physician abruptly terminates a doctor-patient relationship because of lack of payment or refuses to treat a patient because of lack of payment, that is typically considered unjustified.
In the same way that doctors can be held accountable for abandoning a patient mid-treatment, other healthcare professionals may also be held accountable through pursuit of medical malpractice damages. If a nurse, for example, having established all of the legal qualifications discussed above that constitute a provider-patient relationship, terminates the care of a patient in the “critical stage” of treatment without providing the patient adequate opportunity to find an appropriate replacement, the abandonment may constitute patient abandonment.
Other examples of patient abandonment may include: treatment in a hospital without adequate staffing; medical staff failing to contact a patient that has missed an important follow-up appointment; and staff schedule an important follow-up so far into the future that the patient suffers harm in the interim as a result of a lack of treatment.
Every instance of an abrupt termination of the provider-patient relationship does not, however, constitute patient abandonment in the strictest sense. There are indeed valid reasons to terminate the doctor-patient relationship. They include: a physician that acknowledges he or she does not have sufficient skills to adequately treat the patient; a facility with insufficient resources to provide adequate treatment; ethical or legal conflicts that arise during treatment; a patient has violated the physician’s policies; numerous missed appointments; inappropriate behavior on the part of the patient (including sexual advances or verbal abuse).
If a provider has a valid reason to terminate a doctor-patient relationship, there are steps they can take to do so while mitigating liability. They include giving the patient written notice along with a valid reason for the termination of treatment. The doctor can also continue to treat the patient while providing enough time for the patient to find an alternative provider, thus avoiding a lapse in treatment. The physician must also provide for transfer of all medical records associated with the patient’s treatment once a new provider has been secured. This must be done in a reasonable amount of time to avoid lapse in appropriate care.
If you have questions about a possible case of medical malpractice, you should contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney who can help you assess and recover damages. The attorneys of Bizzieri Law offer a wealth of experience in recovering the highest medical malpractice awards, providing our clients remuneration for not just their medical treatment and pain and suffering, but all areas of losses associated with their injuries. We work hard so that you can get on with your life.
Call one of our attorneys at 773.881.9000. We can help.