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Patient Abandonment and Malpractice

Written by Berkowitz

Doctor on the phone

The relationship between a physician and patient is a significant one.

A patient relies on his or her treating physician to make them feel better, and they trust that they will use their expertise and knowledge to do that. Furthermore, they believe that their physician will stand by their side and care for them – seeing them through the worst.

While this typically happens, there are instances where a physician leaves their patient, and the patient suffers because of the abandonment.

When a patient is harmed from a physician’s cessation of treatment, attorneys refer to it as a patient abandonment instance. Sometimes, abandonment results in negligence, while other times the patient caused the abandonment.

What is Patient Abandonment?

A physician is not obligated to treat every patient they encounter.

While they have that right, they also cannot cease treatment without giving the patient adequate time to find a new physician or provider before they remove care.

Patient abandonment occurs when a physician prematurely stops his or her care of the patient, essentially terminating the patient-physician relationship.

Physicians and healthcare providers must follow a code of ethics, which requires them to continue treating a patient if they begin treatment until a suitable replacement is found. The physician is only required to provide ample notice. The physician does not have to wait months for a patient to find a replacement, but the law is not clear on what is “reasonable” regarding how much time must pass before a physician can remove their care.

Instead, the courts consider the circumstances of how the physician stopped their care and the effect it had on the patient.

The Elements of Patient Abandonment Required

To decide if patient abandonment occurred the courts look for the common elements, such as:

  • A doctor-patient relationship existed. First, a doctor-patient relationship must be present for abandonment to occur. The physician accused of desertion must have agreed to treat the patient initially, and treatment must begin.
  • The patient still requires medical attention. A patient fully cured of their condition is not abandoned if their physician is no longer available for a new condition. If the patient still requires treatment and the physician withdraws care, known as the critical stage, then it is abandonment.
  • The withdrawal of care was abrupt. The physician’s cessation of care must be so unexpected that the patient did not have a reasonable time to secure a new physician.
  • The patient suffered injuries. Lastly, the patient must have experienced some form of harm from the abandonment, such as a condition that worsened, hospitalization, or death.

Common Examples of Patient Abandonment

Patient abandonment takes many forms. It can occur in a physician’s private office, hospital, or emergency room. In some cases, a physician could abandon a patient inadvertently, but still be negligent.

To understand abandonment, consider these examples of how a physician could abandon their patient and patients could suffer serious (if not fatal) injuries as a result.

Inadvertently Abandoning the Patient

Sadly, this type of abandonment happens all the time. Physicians are overrun with patients, and the demands of their schedule make it easy for a patient to get lost in the system and forgotten.

While a physician might argue there was no intent to abandon; therefore, they are not liable, the courts disagree. After all, a physician must monitor patient records and follow up with patients until they are adequately treated. In this case, the physician may be liable for general damages, but a physician who inadvertently abandons would not face punitive damages – because they did not cease intentionally.

Transferring Patients without Instructions to New Physician

Even if the physician finds a replacement physician, they must provide the new doctor with instructions and the patient’s medical records so that they can continue treatments efficiently. If the physician fails to provide their patient’s new physician with these guidelines, they are still abandoning the patient.

For example, failing to update on allergies, treatments received, diagnostic tests, and so forth could lead to a misdiagnosis by the second physician.

The Patient’s Failure to Pay

Physicians and hospitals cannot refuse to treat or terminate treatments during critical stages just because the patient does not have insurance or cannot pay for treatment. This only applies to emergency situations. Physicians can refuse treatment to a patient that cannot pay their bill if they are no longer in the critical stage.

For example, a patient needs emergency surgery but has no insurance. A physician could not deny that operation because of their inability to pay. If the patient had a successful surgery and recovered, but was coming in for a follow-up weeks later, the physician could legally deny them because the patient’s condition is no longer life-threatening, and they are out of the “critical stage” of treatment.

A Physician that is Unavailable

Physicians are busy, but they still must return calls or address patient concerns in a reasonable amount of time. When the physician is unavailable continuously throughout the patient’s critical stage, fails to return phone calls, or ignores patient concerns, the courts might consider it abandonment.

The same goes for scheduling. When a physician’s office schedules the patient too far out for treatment, and the physician does not ensure their patients are booked at appropriate intervals, they could still be liable for abandonment.

Is Patient Abandonment Malpractice?

Any time a physician fails to provide patients with treatment that meet the acceptable standard of care, they might be guilty of malpractice.

The medical standard of care is not the same acceptable standard the average person would provide. Instead, it compares the physician’s actions to those of physicians with similar training and expertise. If other physicians would have acted differently, then the accused physician has deviated from the acceptable standard.

Typically, this is done through witness testimony.

Patient Abandonment versus Medical Negligence: Is There a Difference?

Abandonment and negligence are similar when it comes to malpractice.

Both cases involve patient harm and deviating from the standard of care. However, abandonment and negligence are still two different types of malpractice claims. Abandonment essentially is the cessation of treatment, while negligence still involves treatment, but incorrect or inappropriate therapies.

The Harm of Patient Abandonment

Patient abandonment can be devastating for a patient, especially in their critical stages of treatment.

When a physician abandons their patient, the patient’s condition could worsen, become untreatable, and in some cases, turn fatal.

The harm a patient suffers takes many forms and might include:

  • Extensive medical costs
  • Painful and unnecessary treatments
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of enjoyment in life
  • Loss of earning capacity
  • Wrongful death

It is imperative that an attorney establish the connection between the abandonment and the harm the patient suffered. If neglect happens and a patient dies, but it turns out the patient’s condition was not related to the neglect itself, loved ones may not have a case.

To establish the correlation between abandonment and harm, a malpractice attorney will rely heavily on medical experts. Medical experts must prove that the withdrawal of care led to the patient’s injury, worsening condition, or the fatal disease. If the patient would have received timely treatments, which would have increased their lifespan or taken away the risk of death, then the abandonment would directly correlate with the patient’s death; thus, making the physician liable.

Can a Physician End the Patient-Physician Relationship without Accusations of Abandonment?

Not all situations where a patient feels abandon qualify as malpractice. Sometimes physicians have valid reasons for ending their treatment, and these reasons can make them immune from malpractice lawsuits. Some examples where a physician could stop treatment without accusations of negligence include:

  • The physician acknowledges they do not have the equipment, expertise or training to treat the patient effectively
  • The patient has violated physician policies or outright ignores physician treatments – causing their lack of treatment
  • The patient exhibits inappropriate behavior, such as sexual harassment of the physician
  • The patient refuses to comply with the physician’s instructions, making it impossible to treat them
  • There are legal and ethical conflicts between the two parties
  • The patient has canceled and refused to reschedule multiple appointments

Did Your Physician Abandon You? Contact a Malpractice Attorney Now

Many complex issues surround abandonment cases.

If your physician abandoned you and you suffered injuries, speak with a medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible.

Your attorney will need time to review the case history, consult experts, and gather evidence to prove that your physician abandoned you during your critical stages.

To explore your options, meet with an attorney from Berkowitz and Hanna, LLC. Our malpractice team can help determine if you have a valid malpractice case and we will aggressively represent your right to compensation.

Contact Berkowitz and Hanna, LLC to schedule your free case evaluation. Contact us online to get started.