Managing Your Practice

Firing patients


After last month’s column about the difficulty of firing employees, several readers raised the equally dicey issue of dismissing patients from your practice.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

One might assume that, just as patients are free to choose or reject their doctors, physicians have an equal right to reject their patients; and to a certain extent, that’s true. There are no specific laws prohibiting a provider from terminating a patient relationship for any reason, other than a discriminatory one – race, nationality, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, and so on. However, our ethical obligations to “do no harm” and to place our patients’ welfare above our own self-interests dictate that dismissing a patient should be the absolute last resort, after all other options have been exhausted.

First, to avoid charges of arbitrary termination, you should draw up a specific list of situations that could merit a dismissal from your office, and add it to your office manual. Every list will probably differ in some respects, but for the sake of example, here is mine:

  • Threats or violence toward physicians or staff.
  • Inappropriate sexual advances toward physicians or staff.
  • Providing false or misleading medical history.
  • Repeated rude or disruptive behavior.
  • Demands for unapproved, unindicated, or inappropriate treatments or medications (particularly controlled substances).
  • Refusal to adhere to agreed-upon treatment plans.
  • Repeated failure to keep scheduled appointments.
  • Repeated failure to pay medical bills.

As with pretty much everything in a private practice, accurate and written documentation of dismissible behavior is essential. Record all incidents and assemble as much material evidence as possible from all available sources.

In most cases (except the first two infractions on our list, for which we have zero tolerance), we make every effort to resolve the problem amicably. We communicate with the patients in question, explain our concerns, and discuss options for resolution. I also may send a letter, repeating my concerns and proposed solutions, as further documentation of our efforts to achieve an amicable resolution. All verbal and written warnings are, of course, documented as well. If the patient has a managed care policy, we review the managed care contract, which sometimes includes specific requirements for dismissal of its patients.

When such efforts fail, we send the patient two letters – one certified with return receipt, the other by conventional first class, in case the patient refuses the certified copy – explaining the reason for dismissal, and that care will be discontinued in 30 days from the letter’s date. (Most attorneys and medical associations agree that 30 days is sufficient reasonable notice.) We offer to provide care during the interim period, include a list of names and contact information for potential alternate providers, and offer to transfer records after receiving written permission.

Following these precautions will usually protect you from charges of “patient abandonment,” which is generally defined as the unilateral severance by the physician of the physician-patient relationship without giving the patient sufficient advance notice to obtain the services of another practitioner, and at a time when the patient still requires medical attention.

Some states have their own unique definitions of patient abandonment. You should check with your state’s health department, and your attorney, for any unusual requirements in your state, because violating these could lead to intervention by your state licensing board. There also is the risk of civil litigation, which typically is not covered by malpractice policies and may not be covered by your general liability policy either.

Patients who feel that termination was unjustified also may respond with negative reviews on social media, which I’ve discussed in recent columns, and will again, soon.

If something untrue is posted about you on a doctor-rating site, take action. Reputable sites have their own reputations to protect and can usually be persuaded to remove anything that is demonstrably false, although you may need a lawyer’s letter to get their attention. Try to get the error removed entirely or corrected within the original posting. An erratum on some distant page of the website is likely to be ignored, and will leave the false information online, intact.

Unfair comments are unlikely to be removed unless they are blatantly libelous; but many sites allow you to post a response, giving your side of the story. (More on that in the near future.) Also, there is nothing wrong with encouraging happy patients to write favorable reviews on those same sites. Sauce for the goose, and all that.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected].

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