After a recent column about the dilemma of dealing with patients who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19, several readers raised the
Contrary to what seems to be the popular opinion, there are no statutory laws that I am aware of that directly apply to patient dismissal, beyond the obvious ones prohibiting discrimination that I’ve discussed many times. The more realistic concern is leaving yourself vulnerable to civil litigation – usually charges of abandonment.
Criteria will vary by region, jurisdiction, and practice. Since there are no hard and fast rules, your reasons for dismissal should be determined in advance, written out, and included in your practice manual. Once you have laid down your rules, follow them. Exceptions should be rare and made only under extraordinary circumstances.
Most patients are dismissed because of interpersonal conflicts between physician or staff members. Usually, that involves noncompliance with a reasonable treatment plan (including vaccinations), but there are other valid reasons. These include threats of violence, inappropriate sexual advances, providing false or misleading medical history, demands for inappropriate treatments or medications, and repeated failure to keep appointments or pay bills. And most ethics experts agree that you can dismiss someone who insists on treatment outside your area of expertise, or at a location other than your private office.
Even when circumstances warrant, dismissal should be a last resort. As with most interpersonal conflicts, your best option is usually reconciliation. Sit down with the patient, explain your concerns, and discuss what must be done if your doctor-patient relationship is to continue. Often, such patients are not aware (or willing to admit) that they are violating your office policies. Honest communication will often save such relationships. But be sure to make it clear that failure to address the problems you have outlined will result in dismissal from your practice. Document this conversation in detail in the patient’s chart, and follow up with a written communication reconfirming what you discussed.
If, despite your best (documented) efforts, the problems continue and dismissal becomes necessary, following a few generally accepted guidelines will help keep the process smooth and consequence free.
First, try to avoid dismissing a patient in the middle of a course of treatment. If that is unavoidable, you might want to contact your malpractice carrier and review the case with them prior to doing so.
Inform the patient, preferably by certified mail, of your decision. Spell out your reasons, with a reminder that these problems were discussed, and that a warning was issued and not heeded. If the patient belongs to a third-party health plan, be certain that you are acting within the stipulations of your contract with that plan, and inform the payer in writing of your action.
Once again, you must clearly document in the patient’s chart exactly how he or she violated your office policies. This will minimize grounds for charges of discrimination of any sort. Be especially diligent about this step if the patient has any known physical or mental disability.
Give the patient a reasonable amount of time (30 days is common) to find another physician, and mention that you will address any emergent problems within the scope of your specialty within that 30-day period. To minimize any potential allegations of abandonment, include a list of competent physicians in your area (without any guarantees) who might be willing to assume the patient’s care. Alternatively, you can list the phone number or website of a local medical society that they can contact to find a replacement. Offer to transfer medical records to the new physician upon receipt of written permission.
File a copy or scan of the letter, the certified delivery receipt, and the returned signature card in the patient’s chart. While the law states that a first-class letter, properly addressed and stamped, is presumed to have been delivered, you don’t want any question as to whether the patient received written notice of dismissal.
Forcibly ending a physician-patient relationship is a significant event that should not be undertaken lightly. Again, dismissal should be a rare occurrence, a last resort.
Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.