Your patient bequeathed money to you: Can you accept it? 


Michael Victoroff, MD, described the phone call he received from an attorney asking a thorny ethics question involving a patient’s gift to another physician. Dr. Victoroff, a past member of the ethics committee of the American Academy of Family Physicians, had definite thoughts about it.

“The attorney was representing the daughters of an elderly gentleman who had moved from the East Coast to Colorado to be closer to them,” said Dr. Victoroff, who teaches bioethics in the MBA program at the University of Denver and also practices at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“The father visited his new primary care physician frequently because he had multiple health issues.”

The patient was happy with the doctor’s medical care and over time that they developed a friendship. Dr. Victoroff emphasized that no sexual or romantic impropriety ever took place between the patient and his physician.

“But the social relationship went beyond the ordinary doctor-patient boundaries. The patient ultimately named the doctor as his health care proxy in the event that he became unable to make decisions regarding his care. He also mentioned he was going to leave her $100,000 in his will,” says Dr. Victoroff.

The physician did accept the role of proxy, “which raises a whole host of ethical issues,” says Dr. Victoroff. As it happened, she was never called upon to exercise that decision-making authority, since the patient died suddenly and was mentally competent at the time.

After his death, his daughters became aware of the large sum of money he had bequeathed to his doctor. They felt it was unethical for her to accept such a substantial bequest from a patient, and they hired an attorney to contest the will.

No law against it

Dennis Hursh, attorney and managing partner of Physician Agreements Health Law, a Pennsylvania-based law firm that represents physicians, noted in an interview that, “the problem isn’t legal per se. Rather, the problem is an ethical one.”

Legally speaking, there’s no prohibition against receiving a bequest or other form of gift from a patient. “People are free to dispose of their estates in whatever way they see fit, and no law technically precludes a physician from accepting a bequest,” says Dr. Victoroff. “But this presupposes there is nothing improper going on, such as extortion, deception, coercion, or exercising undue influence.”

The issue of bequeathing money to their physician gained attention in a recent case that took place in Australia. Peter Alexakis, MD, received a whopping bequest of $24 million from a patient. The elderly patient had changed his will to name Dr. Alexakis as the sole beneficiary – after Dr. Alexakis had visited him at home 92 times during the preceding months. The original heirs filed a lawsuit in Australia’s Supreme Court against Dr. Alexakis, contesting the will.

The lawsuit was unsuccessful in court, but Dr. Alexakis was found guilty of malpractice by Australia’s Health Care Complaints Commission after being reported to the HCCC by the palliative care physicians who were treating the patient. They alleged that Dr. Alexakis had interfered with their care of the patient. The more serious allegation was that the doctor had engaged in a deliberate strategy to exploit the relationship for financial gain.

Dr. Alexakis was chastised by the HCCC for engaging in “obtuse” and “suspicious” behavior and for “blurring the boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship.”

There are three domains – legal, ethical, and practical – when it comes to accepting bequests or any gifts from patients, says Dr. Victoroff.

“[In] the legal domain, for example, if you receive a bequest from anyone, patient or otherwise, you have to know your local laws about estates and taxes and so forth and obey them,” he said.

Attorney Hursh pointed out that the Australian doctor wasn’t found guilty of wrongdoing in a court of law but rather of unethical conduct by the Australian medical licensing entity.


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