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You or the patient can end the treatment relationship, but until it's over, you have a duty to treat and are a potential defendant if treatment goes awry. Here's the right way to end things.
Abandonment is a claim that the doctor terminated the agreement and stopped treating the patient before the end of his or her duty to render appropriate care. The law attempts to protect the patient from the unavailability of care from the physician in whom the patient placed his or her trust.
The timing of the end of the treatment relationship is important because while the relationship exists, the doctor has a duty to treat and is a potential defendant if that treatment goes awry. When the relationship ends, the doctor has no duty to treat and will incur no further liability.
The doctor-patient relationship can end in several ways, among them:
A patient's intentions to sever the relationship usually are not so clear.
If the patient appears upset, you may want to inquire as to the reason for his or her decision, and you may want to offer to send the medical records to the new physician at no charge or for a minimal charge. Never raise a hint or suggestion of litigation.
If you have any questions about the patient's mental state, you may not be able to just take the patient's word to close the case and end treatment. If that patient is in crisis or is unstable, you must make an effort to have him or her treated by you or someone else.
The author is a health law attorney in Mt. Kisco, New York, and a Medical Economics editorial consultant. She acknowledges the contributions that Frank J. Weinstock, MD, and Paul L. Gordon, MD, made to the column in this issue. Malpractice Consult deals with questions about 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 firstname.lastname@example.org