Patients look to their doctors for a number of things -- including continuity of care. What happens, then, when a patient is left suddenly without appropriate medical care and ends up injured as a result? This is what you should know about medical abandonment and malpractice.
What is medical abandonment?
Once a doctor-patient relationship is established, the doctor has both an ethical and legal duty to make sure that the patient continues to receive care. The doctor cannot abandon a patient who needs critical medical care to his or her own devices without giving the patient enough time to find a qualified replacement. If the doctor does abandon the patient, and the patient is injured, the doctor is guilty of malpractice.
How is a doctor-patient relationship established? States vary on how they determine whether or not a doctor-patient relationship exists. Federal law requires hospitals that have emergency departments to see patients who have emergency conditions, regardless of any prior relationship with the hospital or an ability to pay. In general, however, doctors don't have to treat every patient that wants to be seen. Once a doctor does start treatment, however, a doctor-patient relationship has been established -- even if the doctor was just on-call at an emergency room or is seeing a patient on behalf of another doctor who is out of town.
How does medical abandonment happen?
Medical abandonment can happen in a number of different ways:
the practice or hospital can have inadequate staff, leaving the patient unattended
the doctor doesn't give the patient any notice before closing his or her practice
the doctor fires the patient from the practice without advance notice -- giving a patient who has a critical medical problem too little time to find a new doctor
the doctor (or the doctor's staff) ignores a critical care request from a patient
a doctor leaves a patient that needs treatment in another doctor's care, without communicating the patient's specific medical needs
a doctor leaves a patient in the care of a doctor that isn't qualified to treat the patient's condition
a patient in the middle of a medical crisis is turned away from his or her doctor's office because of an unpaid bill
a patient is sent home from the hospital prematurely
a doctor doesn't provide appropriate follow-up care instructions to a patient who has a need for critical care
Sometimes patient abandonment is very obvious. For example, if an obstetrician leaves a woman in labor in the care of whatever doctor is on-call that day without telling the doctor about her high blood pressure, and she suffers a stroke, patient abandonment is fairly clear. However, a more subtle form of patient abandonment is also possible. For example, one doctor was held liable after he failed to tell a patient about an irregular heartbeat during pre-operative tests. His failure to inform his patient of appropriate follow-up care was considered patient abandonment.
If you've suffered as a result of medical abandonment, talk to an attorney such as Gomez May LLP about the possibility of recovering damages for your injuries.