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How to protect yourself when you share care duty


If you provide care to a patient, even if he or she normally sees another physician for such care, you have established a duty to treat that patient and are a potential defendant if something goes wrong. Learn your responsibilities as well as ways to minimize your risk in such situations.

Key Points

In many situations, the doctor-patient relationship is limited. Perhaps you practice in an area popular with traveling businesspeople, vacationers, or retirees in the winter. Or maybe the spouse of one of your patients requests care when in the office with your patient. Many doctors try to make care as accessible as possible but at the same time want to limit their liability for patients with whom the relationship may be limited and the responsibility unclear.


If you undertake the duty, you will be held to the standard of care of a doctor in the relevant practice area or specialty at the time of treatment. If the patient is injured or has an adverse outcome and sues, he or she will need to prove that you departed from that standard.

Following the applicable standard of care does not mean conducting a full-scale new-patient assessment before treating every patient you see. Many doctors avoid liability by insisting that patients come in for formal appointments under such circumstances, however. They explain to patients that it is necessary for them to take a history, perform a physical exam, and document the treatment, results, and disposition in the chart.


If you provide care to a patient who normally sees another physician for such care, a good analogy is that of the covering doctor, whose duties include:


You can minimize your liability by taking these steps:

In general, you are responsible only for your own actions. If an adverse event occurs and the patient sues, both you and the patient's regular doctor will be named. You both will be held liable only for what you did that may have fallen below the standard of care. If a settlement or judgment occurs and it is reasoned that both defendants made missteps in some way, the liability will be apportioned between both doctors.

The increasing mobility of our society makes the sharing of responsibility between doctors a growing issue. Communication can help ensure that care is not fragmented.

The author is a health law attorney in Mt. Kisco, New York, and a Medical Economics consultant. She acknowledges the contributions that Frank Weinstock, MD, and Joseph Bottino, MD, made to the column in this issue. Malpractice Consult deals with questions on common professional liability issues. Unfortunately, we cannot offer specific legal advice. If you have a general question or a topic you would like to see covered here, please send it to medec@advanstar.com

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