From time to time, people call Painter Law Firm with concerns over being abandoned or dropped by their doctors. Before discussing the protections that Texas law provides to patients in this area, let’s first address one important point.
Doctor-patient relationships aren’t automatic
The general rule in Texas is that the professional relationship between a physician and a patient is voluntary, based on a written or oral contract. Most of the time, the relationship is based on fee for service, whether the patient is paying out-of-pocket or through insurance. Compensation isn’t absolutely required, though, to create a doctor-patient relationship.
It is clear, though, that Texas law doesn’t require physicians to accept new patients. That’s why one of the first elements of proof necessary to bring a medical malpractice/negligence lawsuit against a physician is that the doctor owed a duty to the patient. If the doctor and patient never entered into a physician-patient relationship, then the doctor owes no duty to that patient under Texas law.
The first step that we take in looking at a potential claim that a patient has been abandoned or dropped by a doctor is whether there was a physician-patient relationship. It’s not enough that the patient really needed medical care. It’s not enough even if the patient went to a hospital and the doctor was on call but didn’t show up. Texas law only imposes on physicians a duty to care for patients for whom they’ve agreed to create a doctor-patient relationship.
The relationship doesn’t have to be permanent
Once a physician agrees to get involved in the patient’s care, the relationship doesn’t have to be permanent. In my experience, doctors sometimes decide to drop a patient under these circumstances:
• The patient is noncompliant, or doesn’t follow the doctor’s advice, orders, or instructions.
• The patient doesn’t show up for appointments repeatedly.
• The physician is no longer a preferred provider in a health insurance plan.
• The patient doesn’t pay for the services provided.
Patient termination rights
Once a doctor-patient relationship is in place, then a physician can’t just drop a patient cold turkey. When a doctor decides to terminate a professional relationship with the patient, the physician must give the patient sufficient notice to find a new doctor.
Texas law doesn’t specify a specific number of days, but just requires “reasonable notice.” When a court makes a reasonableness determination, the analysis focuses on the surrounding circumstances. If a primary care provider wants to terminate a patient relationship, it should be relatively easy for the patient to find a new doctor. If a physician in an uncommon subspecialty decides to drop a patient, the patient may need more time to find substitute care.
Medical negligence for abandonment
When a doctor drops a patient without giving reasonable notice, it can be a basis for a medical malpractice suit if that mistake by the doctor causes serious injury or death to the patient.
In those unfortunate situations, it makes sense to contact a top-rated, experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer for help in evaluating the merits of the potential claim.