Termination of the Physician-Patient Relationship

December 6, 2010, 11:12 AM

A physician may not voluntarily abandon a patient. After a physician has accepted a patient, s/he has a duty to continue providing services as long as they are necessary. Even in situations where personal attention is no longer necessary in treatment of a particular condition, if the case calls for it, the physician must provide the patient with instructions as to care.

Generally, the physician-patient relationship continues until the physicians services are no longer needed by the patient. This principle is true unless the physicians services are conditioned or limited by a notice or the terms of the employment. However, the physician-patient relationship may also terminate by mutual consent of both physician and patient or by the unilateral action of the patient. Likewise, the physician has a right to withdraw from the relationship, but only if the patient is given a reasonable opportunity to acquire the needed services from another physician.

A formal discharge or termination is not always necessary. If there is nothing more to be done as to the particular condition the physician is employed to treat, or if the physician ceases to attend the patient for the particular condition, the treatment usually ends without formality.

The basic tenet is that a physicians duty to a patient endures as long as treatment is necessary, unless the patient terminates the relationship or the physician withdraws, allowing the patient sufficient time to find another physician. There is no bright-line rule establishing that a patient has abandoned the relationship by missing a certain number of appointments or not seeing a physician for a certain amount of time, although these factors certainly play into whether treatment continued to be necessary. Therefore, if the physician has not seen the patient in a number of years, it is generally safe to say that care was no longer necessary and the physician-patient relationship has concluded. --Mary Beth Sherwin