What can a physician do when maintaining the physician-patient relationship is no longer in the best interest of either the physician or the patient? While this is a common concern of physicians, there is a simple solution: Terminate the relationship. The ethics of the medical profession define the physician–patient relationship as one in which the doctor accepts ongoing responsibility for the patient’s medical care. Unfortunately, there will be some physician–patient relationships that, for whatever reason, simply do not work, and therefore it is in the best interest of the patient to terminate the relationship.
Explore This IssueJanuary 2013
In general, a physician may legally and ethically decide not to continue treating a patient as long as the patient is not in need of immediate care and has been given a reasonable opportunity to find another provider. However, it is advisable that a letter be sent to the patient indicating that the physician-patient “contract” has been terminated. This letter should be drafted by a health care attorney so as to avoid potential legal pitfalls for the physician and the medical practice.
Grounds for Terminating the Physician-Patient Relationship
A successful physician–patient relationship must be based on mutual trust and effective communication. When these elements break down, it is likely in both parties’ interests to terminate the relationship. Common reasons for terminating the physician-patient relationship include:
- The patient fails to pay his/her bills.
- The patient continually cancels or misses appointments.
- The patient is rude, disruptive, uses improper language, exhibits violent behavior or threatens the safety of the office staff or other patients.
- The office staff is uncomfortable working with or communicating with the patient.
- The patient is dissatisfied with the care he/she received from the physician.
- The patient requires more highly specialized services than the physician can provide.
- There is a conflict of interest between the patient and the physician (e.g., the physician’s religious beliefs preclude him/her from providing certain treatment options, or the physician has a personal or financial interest in the treatment option).
- The patient is habitually uncooperative and refuses to comply with the treatment plan.
- The patient fails to complete a series of treatments.
- The patient is unreasonably demanding.
- The patient did not provide an honest medical history or was misleading in the information he/she provided, thereby compromising the efficacy of treatment.
- The patient develops a personal interest in the physician. Examples include excessive contact with the physician, demanding the physician’s time in the absence of a legitimate or urgent medical need or becoming angry or unreasonable when the physician is unavailable.
- The physician develops a personal interest in the patient. Examples include consultations that involved discussion of information not relevant to the patient’s treatment (e.g., details about the physician’s personal life), the physician becomes attracted to the patient or the physician acted in a manner that would be deemed inappropriate by his/her colleagues.
- The patient filed a complaint or initiated a legal proceeding against the physician.
Steps to Terminating the Relationship and the Letter to the Patient
One of the most difficult problems for a physician is finding the most appropriate way to terminate the physician–patient relationship. The responsibility for ending the relationship rests with the physician and should not be delegated to an office staff member. Here are several steps for physicians to follow when terminating the relationship with a patient: