One might assume that, just as patients are free to accept or reject their doctors, physicians have an equal right to reject their patients; to a certain extent, that is 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, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. However, the evolution of ever-larger practice environments has raised new questions.
While verbal abuse, inappropriate treatment demands (particularly for controlled substances), refusal to adhere to mutually agreed treatment plans, and failure to keep appointments or pay bills remain the most common reasons for dismissal, evolving practice environments may require us to modify our responses.
What happens, for example, when a patient is banned from a large clinic that employs most of that community’s physicians, or is the only practice in town with the specialists required by that patient? The medical profession does have an obligation to not exclude such patients from care.
In a large cross-specialty system or consolidated specialist practice, firing a patient has a very different level of consequences than in a small office. There must be a balance between separating patients and doctors who don’t get along and seeing that the patient in question receives competent treatment. The physician, as the professional, has a higher standard to live up to with respect to handling this kind of situation.
If the problem is a personality conflict, the solution may be as simple as transferring the patient to another caregiver within the practice. While it does not make sense for a patient to continue seeing a doctor who does not want to see them, it also does not make sense to ban a patient from a large system where there could well be one or more other doctors who would be a good match. If a patient is unable to pay outstanding bills, a large clinic might prohibit them from making new appointments until they have worked out a payment plan rather than firing them outright.
If you are part of a large practice, take the time to research your group’s official policies for dealing with such situations. If there is no written policy, you might want to start that discussion with your colleagues.
The point is that in any practice, large or small, firing a patient should be a last resort. Try to make every effort to resolve the problem amicably. Communicate with the patient in question, explain your concerns, and discuss options for resolution. Take time to listen to the patient, as they may have an explanation (rational or not) for their objectionable behavior.
You can also send a letter, repeating your concerns and proposed solutions, as further documentation of your efforts to achieve an amicable resolution. All verbal and written warnings must, of course, be documented. 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 them could lead to intervention by your state licensing board. There is also the risk of civil litigation, which is typically not covered by malpractice policies, and may not be covered by your general liability policy either.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.