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Can I Sue My Doctor for Not Helping Me?

Updated December 21, 2023 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

Whether you can sue your doctor for not helping you is a complex issue that depends on a number of factors.

Once a doctor–patient relationship has been established, a doctor is obligated to continue to provide care for a patient. However, there are circumstances in which a doctor can legitimately refuse to begin a doctor–patient relationship or terminate an existing doctor–patient relationship as long as they follow appropriate steps.

A successful medical malpractice personal injury lawsuit hinges on proving a doctor’s negligence in providing care that meets accepted medical standards.

Suppose a doctor refuses to treat or stops treating a patient for unacceptable reasons or does not take appropriate steps in ending the doctor–patient relationship and a serious injury or death results. In that situation, it could be argued that the applicable standard of care was violated.

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What Laws or Codes Govern the Doctor–Patient Relationship?

The doctor–patient relationship is not governed by one specific, all-encompassing statute—it’s more complicated than that. State and federal laws cover some aspects of it; court decisions cover others. The American Medical Association (AMA) Code of Medical Ethics provides guidance on this.

When does the doctor–patient relationship begin? 

According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, it begins when a doctor “acts in a patient’s case by examining, diagnosing, treating, or agreeing to do so.” This might be when:

  • A doctor treats an unconscious patient in the emergency room
  • A doctor’s office accepts a patient’s paperwork and books an appointment
  • A doctor gives an opinion on a patient’s treatment in a hospital

Once this relationship is established, a doctor is bound to keep treating the patient. The patient can end the relationship at any time and for any reason. But if the doctor wants to end it, they must be careful to take appropriate steps.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the laws and codes related to the doctor–patient relationship.

Federal Laws

Two federal laws place significant and strict limitations on when a doctor can refuse to treat a patient.

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits healthcare providers participating in the Medicare or Medicaid programs from discriminating against anyone based on their race, color, or national origin. This means that a doctor cannot refuse to treat a patient because of the patient’s race, color, ethnicity, or other protected status.
  • The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act of 1986 (EMTALA) requires emergency room (ER) physicians to provide a medical screening and emergency treatment to anyone who comes through their doors, regardless of whether they have insurance or can pay. The law also specifies that ERs must care for a woman in active labor. ER doctors and institutions are subject to hefty fines and civil lawsuits if they violate EMTALA’s stipulations.

Indiana Laws

Title 844 of the Indiana Administrative Code includes a section on standards of professional conduct for doctors and other licensed health care practitioners.

  • Rule 2, Section 4 lays out procedures for when a doctor wants to terminate the doctor–patient relationship. If a physician doesn’t follow these steps, it may be argued that he or she abandoned his or her patient. To withdraw from seeing a patient in Indiana, a doctor must:
    • Give the patient “reasonable written notice” so they can find another provider to continue their treatment.
    • Provide all records related to their treatment of the patient to the patient and to any other doctor they go to for continued care.
  • Rule 2, Section 5 states, “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.” A key factor in determining whether a medical injury case involves malpractice is weighing a doctor’s actions against a “reasonable care” standard. This code implies that standards like the AMA Code of Medical Ethics are relevant to malpractice cases.

AMA Code of Medical Ethics

Professional organizations such as the American Medical Association play a vital role in determining the standard of care physicians must provide to their patients. Chapter 1 of the AMA Code of Medical Ethics explicitly addresses when a doctor can choose not to accept a patient and how a doctor should go about terminating their relationship with a patient.

According to the AMA, valid reasons for not accepting a patient include:

  • A patient asking a doctor to provide services beyond the scope of their practice: For example, a cardiologist can refuse to help with a patient’s diabetes treatment because it’s outside their area of expertise.
  • A patient asking for treatment that won’t help their condition: For example, antibiotics treat bacterial infections, not viral ones. Therefore, a doctor can refuse to prescribe antibiotics for a patient’s viral disease.
  • A patient behaving in an abusive or threatening way toward the doctor or other health care personnel: This applies to non-emergency situations. If a patient requires emergency care, a doctor is ethically required to provide treatment.

The AMA’s steps for terminating the doctor–patient relationship mirror the requirements of Indiana law covered above.

In theory, a physician could refuse to see a patient who can’t pay for services. They must ensure, however, that the patient’s condition is not a medical emergency. In addition, Chapter 11 of the AMA Code of Medical Ethics says that physicians have “an ethical responsibility to ensure that all persons have access to needed care regardless of their economic means.” This responsibility might extend to:

  • Offering free services to some patients
  • Directing patients to where they can receive free services
  • Helping qualified patients apply for medical assistance programs

How Do I Prove a Medical Malpractice Case?

Whether your doctor refused to treat you, left you on your own, or didn’t follow up on your care, proving medical malpractice comes down to four things: 

  1. You and the doctor in question had an established relationship, or the doctor had a duty to care for your medical condition.
  2. The doctor did not provide care that met established standards.
  3. The doctor’s failure to provide reasonable care resulted in injury or death.
  4. The injury resulted in damages, such as additional or ongoing medical bills, loss of income, and pain and suffering.

When is a doctor justified in refusing to see a patient? What constitutes patient abandonment or failure to follow up? The answers to these questions are not always clear-cut. Because of this, it’s helpful to discuss a doctor’s refusal to treat you or failure to follow up on your treatment with an experienced medical malpractice attorney.

Why Would a Doctor Not Accept a Patient?

A doctor might not accept someone as their patient if:

  • The patient asks for services outside the doctor’s specialty: For example, if you ask a pediatrician to treat your arthritis, they are likely to refuse to treat you.
  • The patient wants a treatment that won’t help their condition or is not scientifically proven.
  • The patient is rude or abusive to the doctor and their staff.

Why Would a Doctor Stop Seeing a Patient?

Unless a doctor is under contract (for example, with a hospital or health management organization) to treat you, they are not legally obligated to keep you as a patient.

However, if a doctor no longer wants to see you as a patient, they have a responsibility to:

  • Give you written notice of their decision to ensure you have adequate time to find another provider.
  • Provide ongoing care while you’re looking for another doctor.
  • Give copies of your medical records to you and your new doctor.

Some common reasons why a doctor might stop seeing a patient include:

  • The patient continually refuses to follow the treatment plan decided on by the doctor.
  • The patient repeatedly does not show up for appointments.
  • The patient is verbally abusive toward the doctor and office staff.

If your doctor stops treating you without giving you adequate notice or refuses to keep treating you while you look for another doctor, they may be liable for medical malpractice if your condition worsens.

What if a Doctor Doesn’t Follow Up When Necessary?

Doctors are required to provide ongoing care once a doctor–patient relationship has been established.

Suppose your condition requires follow-up. If your doctor doesn’t take the necessary steps, they may be liable for medical malpractice if their lack of care causes injury or death.

Examples of things that could be construed as failure-to-follow-up medical malpractice include:

  • Not reporting your lab or test results (especially if the results mean that you need to take action to prevent your condition from worsening)
  • Not scheduling a follow-up visit after a procedure
  • Not checking with you to ensure you’re following your treatment plan
  • Not calling you if you don’t show up for an appointment

What Do I Do If A Doctor Refuses to Treat Me?

If your doctor refuses to treat you, stops treating you, or does not follow up on your treatment for any of the following reasons, you might be able to claim medical malpractice.

  • The doctor refuses to treat you because of your race, color, ethnicity, or another legally protected status.
  • You have a medical emergency, and the doctor refuses to treat you.
  • Your doctor stops your treatment because you didn’t pay your last bill.
  • Your doctor won’t see you but doesn’t give you adequate time to find another provider.
  • Your doctor takes too long sending your medical records to your new provider.
  • Your doctor terminates the doctor–patient relationship while you’re in the middle of a series of treatments—for example, in the middle of chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
  • Your doctor doesn’t tell you that you tested positive for a condition that requires treatment.
  • Your doctor doesn’t give you instructions on what to do after you’ve been discharged from the hospital.

So, can you sue a doctor for refusing to treat you? If these or similar circumstances apply to you and the doctor’s actions (or lack of action) result in an injury, your condition becoming chronic, or your condition worsening, you may have a medical malpractice case.

Keep a diary of your interactions with your doctor and other personnel, including nurse practitioners, nurses, and administrative staff. Also keep records of the treatment of your medical condition by other clinicians. In addition, reach out to a medical malpractice personal injury lawyer to discuss your case.

Where Can I Find More Information on Medical Malpractice?

Our medical malpractice FAQ answers a number of common questions regarding medical malpractice lawsuits. Common causes of medical malpractice include surgical errors, diagnosis errors (misdiagnosis, failure to diagnose, and delayed diagnosis), prescription errors, hospital-acquired infections, childbirth injuries, and premature discharge.

Indianapolis Medical Malpractice Lawyers

If you were harmed by a doctor’s refusal to treat or lack of follow-up, you may be experiencing not only the pain and anxiety of your medical condition but also the added financial burden of paying for treatment or lost wages. The experienced medical malpractice lawyers of Wilson Kehoe Winingham can help you through this difficult time. Contact WKW today for a free, no-obligation consultation about your case.

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

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