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Carefully discharge difficult patients


All physicians are perfect, and all patients are perfect, right? Wrong. When the doctor-patient relationship goes south, you have the right to terminate your involvement, just so long as you follow these rules.

Key Points

In a perfect world, all physicians are perfect, all patients are perfect, and all doctor-patient relationships are perfect. But in the real world, this is not always the case. Patients can be a problem, and as a physician, you have a right to terminate your relationship with them.

Once a physician-patient relationship is established, the doctor has an ongoing responsibility to the patient until that relationship is terminated. Patient abandonment occurs when a physician fails to provide the necessary medical care to a current patient without adequate justification. Therefore, a protocol for patient termination is absolutely necessary.


Warning signs that a relationship with a patient is significantly challenged or consistently devalued include failure by the patient to comply with a recommended plan of care, including subsequent appointments, and consistent no-shows. Physicians can discharge a patient for several reasons, including continual no-shows for appointments, nonadherence with a prescribed treatment regimen, threatening behavior, and nonpayment for services rendered.

No shows. No-shows create a loss of revenue, but when they become a chronic issue, taking action is critical. If the patient continues to schedule appointments and fails to show up, you also may put your malpractice insurance carrier on notice when you initiate patient dismissal. If this patient has a serious medical problem in the future, you do not want a lawsuit claiming abandonment.

Violent patients. Training your staff and having an emergency response plan in place is your best defense against violent events should they occur. Staff members should be able to judge whether a situation has escalated and then be trained to call 911 immediately. Remember, a false alarm is better than a tragedy. Should you or your staff ever believe that your lives are at risk, leave immediately. Dismissal of these patients should be handled with immediate notifications to the proper authorities and your malpractice insurance carrier.

Patients who don't pay. A patient's failure to pay a bill can occur for several reasons. Nonpayment is often an early warning sign that a patient is unsatisfied with his or her outcome, or it can simply be evidence of lack of funds. Always consider both options, and always try to determine why the patient has not paid. Doing so can be a difficult and uncomfortable process and therefore should always be handled by a staff member with excellent communication skills.

Patients experiencing financial hardship will appreciate the opportunity to make arrangements to honor their financial obligations. Patients voicing an issue regarding care via nonpayment always should be referred to the physician, who should then seek risk management assistance from a professional liability carrier.

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© National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
© National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
© National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
© National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health