Once a physician/patient relationship is established, the general rule is that a physician has a duty to continue to provide care to the patient until that relationship is terminated by the mutual consent of the physician and patient, the patient’s dismissal of the physician, the services of the physician are no longer needed or the physician properly withdraws from the physician/patient relationship. Various laws, including laws governing emergency treatment provided by hospitals and antidiscrimination laws, as well as certain ethical constraints, have significantly limited a physician’s ability to terminate the relationship.
The federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, commonly referred to as "EMTALA," was enacted by Congress in response to a concern over "patient dumping" by hospitals refusing treatment of individuals who could not afford to pay for medical services. EMTALA imposes a duty on the hospital and its physicians to provide medical screening examinations and medical stabilization of all individuals seeking emergency care, regardless of the individual’s ability to pay. Under EMTALA, a patient cannot directly sue a physician for not complying with EMTALA’s requirements, but physicians may be subject to civil monetary penalties and may be subject to exclusion from participation in the Medicare and Medicaid programs for gross and flagrant or repeated violations of EMTALA.
Antidiscrimination laws also have affected the circumstances when a physician may deny medical care. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits an otherwise qualified individual with a disability from being excluded from or denied benefits of any program actively receiving federal financial assistance solely by reason of the individual’s disability.
The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 provides even broader protections for disabled individuals, including individuals who have a contagious disease. Title III of the ADA prohibits a place of public accommodation from denying an individual access to health care because of disability, unless the individual poses a direct threat or significant risk to the health and safety of others that cannot be eliminated by adequate precautions or reasonable modification of policies, practices or procedures. A disabled individual is one who has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment.
In several cases, the courts have addressed the application of the ADA to a physician’s decision to refuse to treat a patient. For example, in the case of Bragdon v. Abbott, decided by the Supreme Court in 1998, the court found that asymptotic HIV infection is a disability under the ADA. Bragdon involved a dentist’s refusal to fill a cavity of an asymptotic HIV patient in his office, although the dentist was willing to treat the patient in a hospital at a higher cost to the patient. The patient sued Bragdon for violation of the ADA. The court ruled that asymptotic HIV constitutes a disability. The court’s decision speaks to health care providers’ legal obligation to treat HIV infected patients along with patients with other disabilities.
Ethical considerations may also limit the circumstances under which a physician can deny care to a patient. Both the ethical opinions and legal precedents agree that a physician may not intentionally and unilaterally sever an existing relationship with any patient, unless the physician provides reasonable notice to the patient, in writing, and sufficient time to locate another physician.
Disclaimer Information on this site is provided by Brian Scott Wayson as general information, not legal advice, and use of this information does not establish an attorney-client relationship. If you have questions about your specific situation, please call an attorney.
The answer above appears to be very thorough. Let me add the tiny little bit of insight that I have in this area. I have seen some cases where doctors believed that patients were exhibiting "drug seeking behavior" and therefore elected not to provide treatment that involved prescribing or administering narcotic medicines. Some doctors are very concerned that they will face civil and possible criminal liability if they wrongly prescribe or over-prescribe certain drugs known for abuse. In addition to legal trouble doctors must worry about maintaining their professional licenses and answering to state regulators. In general there is a lot of scrutiny on doctors who prescribe heavy painkillers. They constantly have to make sure what they are doing is proper. I wonder if in your case if your doctor refused to treat you at all or refused to treat you in the way you thought was best. There is a big difference in terms of a doctor's duty to his/her patient.
I hope you feel better soon. Good luck.
--- I'm not your lawyer. The above post is not legal advice and should not be used as such. I don't know the necessary details of your case or anything about your personal background. I encourage you to seek legal representation for all matters where you believe your liberty or property interests may be at risk.