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What Is Patient Abandonment?

February 26, 2023 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

Once a physician and a person needing medical treatment have an established doctor–patient relationship, the law and medical ethics require the physician to continue to treat the patient. There are legitimate reasons, however, for a doctor to stop treating a patient. If that is the case, doctors must be careful to follow appropriate procedures when doing so.

Patient abandonment is when a doctor or other health care provider stops treating a patient without taking these steps:

  • Giving the patient adequate written notice
  • Referring the patient to another provider
  • Transferring all records and test results to the patient’s new provider

You may have a medical malpractice case if your medical condition worsened because a doctor stopped treating you on short notice, didn’t help you find another doctor, or took too long to transfer your medical records.

Let’s take a detailed look at patient abandonment medical malpractice. Our medical malpractice FAQ provides more general information.

Patient Abandonment Laws

Patient abandonment in Indiana is governed by Indiana law, court decisions, and established standards of medical ethics.

Indiana Law

Title 844, Article 5, Rule 2 of the Indiana Administrative Code covers standards of professional conduct in medicine.

  • Section 5 says, “A practitioner shall exercise reasonable care and diligence in the treatment of patients based upon generally accepted scientific principles, methods, treatments, and current professional theory and practice.”

“Reasonable care” is an important standard in determining whether medical malpractice has occurred. Did the doctor in question provide care that matched the standard of what a typical, reasonable doctor would provide?

In addition, the law’s reference to “current professional theory and practice” implies that documents like the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) Code of Medical Ethics are also relevant to medical malpractice cases.

Two more sections of Title 844, Article 5, Rule 2 are relevant to Indiana patient abandonment cases.

  • Section 4 specifically says, “A practitioner shall not abandon a patient.” This section spells out what steps a doctor must take if they want to stop seeing a patient:
    • “The practitioner shall give reasonable written notice to a patient . . . when the practitioner withdraws from a case so that another practitioner may be employed by the patient.”
    • “A practitioner who withdraws from a case” must make available to the patient and their new doctor “all records, test results, histories, x-rays, radiographic studies, diagnoses, files, and information relating to said patient.”
  • Section 16 covers steps a doctor must take if they’re closing their practice—a legitimate reason for no longer seeing a patient. These steps include:
    • Notifying patients in writing once a week for three weeks in a row in a newspaper that the practice is closing
    • Encouraging patients to find another provider
    • Transferring patients’ records to their new providers

AMA Code of Medical Ethics

Chapter 1 of the AMA Code of Medical Ethics covers patient–physician relationships. The section on terminating a patient–physician relationship says that when a doctor wants to stop seeing a patient, they must:

  • Notify the patient “long enough in advance to permit the patient to secure another physician.”
  • “Facilitate transfer of care when appropriate.”

These requirements are very similar to what Indiana law stipulates. 

Although the requirements in Indiana law and the AMA Code of Medical Ethics seem simple, matters are often much more complicated.

  • Phrases like “reasonable written notice” and “long enough in advance” leave quite a bit of room for interpretation.
  • The AMA Journal of Ethics encourages doctors to try to work things out with a patient even if the patient repeatedly doesn’t follow the doctor’s prescribed treatment plan.

Proving Medical Malpractice

To win a medical malpractice case in Indiana, a plaintiff must prove four things:

  1. There was an established doctor–patient relationship.
  2. The doctor violated the standard of “reasonable care.”
  3. The lack of reasonable care caused an injury or worsened the patient’s medical condition.
  4. The injury or medical condition resulted in damages like new medical bills or an inability to work.

A patient abandonment medical malpractice case, like other medical malpractice personal injury cases, must involve all four items. In other words, just because your doctor abruptly stops treating you doesn’t necessarily mean you have a malpractice case.

For example, suppose your doctor drops you as a patient on only a week’s notice. However, you quickly find a new doctor and your care continues without any negative effects on your health.

In this case, although your original physician didn’t give you “reasonable written notice” of dropping you as a patient, their breach of the standard of care didn’t result in an injury or cause your health to worsen. Therefore, you would probably not be able to bring charges of medical malpractice.

However, if you had difficulty finding a new doctor and the delay caused your health to deteriorate, resulting in new medical bills and time missed from work, you might have a malpractice case.

If you think your doctor’s actions may constitute patient abandonment, it’s best to discuss the matter with a patient abandonment medical malpractice lawyer.

When Can a Doctor Stop Treating a Patient?

There are some acceptable reasons for a doctor to stop treating a patient. Examples include:

  • The doctor is closing their practice.
  • The doctor doesn’t have the skills to provide the treatment the patient needs.
  • The doctor doesn’t have the resources or equipment needed to treat the patient.
  • The patient doesn’t follow the treatment plan outlined by the doctor.
  • The patient repeatedly misses appointments.
  • The patient behaves inappropriately toward the doctor or office staff—using abusive language or making threats or sexual advances.

Even if a doctor has one or more of the above reasons for terminating the doctor–patient relationship, they are still obligated to follow the appropriate legal steps—giving adequate notice, referring the patient to another provider, and transferring records.

Examples of Medical Abandonment

Medical abandonment is not necessarily due to a doctor being incompetent or malicious. Patient abandonment can include:

  • A short-staffed medical office neglecting communication between doctor and patient:
    • You report a change in your symptoms, but it doesn’t get passed on to the doctor.
    • The doctor has new instructions for you, but they aren’t passed on to you.
  • A lack of follow-up:
    • The office is so busy that your condition has worsened by the time you have your follow-up appointment.
    • Your lab or test results indicate a new diagnosis or that action is required, but you aren’t informed in a timely manner.
    • The staff doesn’t call you when you miss an appointment.

Other examples of medical abandonment include:

  • A doctor abruptly canceling your appointment
  • A doctor discontinuing service when you’re in the middle of a series of treatments
  • A doctor delaying the transfer of your records to your new provider
  • A hospital discharging you too soon
  • A hospital sending you home without clear instructions or a follow-up plan

When Do Most Cases of Patient Abandonment Occur?

Patient abandonment is one of the less common types of medical malpractice claims. It’s difficult to determine the most frequent cause of patient abandonment claims because statistics on such cases are scarce. Nevertheless, the consequences of patient abandonment can be just as severe as those of other types of medical malpractice.

Indianapolis Patient Abandonment Lawyers

If you were injured or your medical condition worsened because a doctor abandoned you during  treatment, you may be able to collect compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. The experienced Indiana medical malpractice lawyers at Wilson Kehoe Winingham can help you get through the difficulties you’re in because of patient abandonment. Contact WKW today for a free, no-obligation consultation.

Contact Us

Let WKW put our experience to work for you. Contact us for your free case evaluation.

Or, call us today at (317) 920-6400

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