Doctors and the refusal to provide medical care

A recent article in the Huffington Post, looking at the current Ebola epidemic and the risk here in the United States, asked the interesting question of whether or not physicians have a duty to treat patients who present the symptoms of Ebola. While we would like to assume that physicians treat whoever walks into their clinic or hospital, this isn’t always the case.

Ebola, being the kind of disease it is, could conceivably create a situation where a physician has intractable concerns about exposing himself or herself to the virus. From the standpoint of professional ethics, the issue may be looked at from various angles, including the general ethical duty to treat those who are in need of medical care, as well as the degree of risk in treating the condition and the prospect of rendering successful medical treatment. Obviously, cases in which the risks of treating the patient are high and the prospects of success low, it is harder to find an ethical duty to treat.

Discussions of professional ethical duties aside, doctors do not have a legal duty to treat a patient until a doctor-patient relationship is established. From both a legal and an ethical standpoint, a physician should not take on a patient without an appropriate amount of knowledge and experience. Once the relationship is established, the physician is then under a legal obligation to move forward in providing appropriate medical treatment until the relationship terminates. Failure to do so can lead to tort liability. Exactly when the doctor-patient relationship begins is, therefore, an important legal issue.

Termination of the doctor-patient relationship can happen on the initiative of either the physician or the patient. If the physician ends the relationship, however, he or she is obliged to provide the patient adequate notice to seek out another health care provider. Usually this isn’t much of a problem, but issues can come up, including the problem of ensuring insurance coverage for the patient.

It isn’t possible to deal here with all the legal issues that can come up when there is a refusal of care to a patient. Those who believe they have been harmed by an illegal refusal to provide medical treatment should contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney to have their case evaluated.

Source: Huffington Post, “Do Doctors Have a Duty to Treat Patients With Ebola?,” Stephen G. Post, Oct. 21, 2014.

The Free Dictionary, “Helath Care Law,” Accessed Nov. 19, 2014. 

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