Patient Abandonment: A Form Of Medical Malpractice

Patient abandonment can be hard to spot. You’d think it’s as simple as a doctor “abandoning” a patient, but it’s more in depth than that. Here’s an example to get us started.

In 2003, a patient at the Obstetrics Clinic of the University Of Michigan became pregnant after suffering a miscarriage. She was scheduled for a cerclage.

But when her doctor learned she had filed a lawsuit against another doctor, he decided he would not perform the procedure.

The cerclage was performed four days later by another obstetrician. The patient subsequently suffered another miscarriage. Luckily, she was able to root out the malpractice with the help of an attorney. She filed a lawsuit for patient abandonment.

Sometimes, medical malpractice is pretty easy to spot. When people hear those words, their minds often wander to surgical mistakes.

But there are many cases of medical malpractice that are more difficult to identify. In fact, oftentimes patients have no idea they’ve been the victim of malpractice. Until they talk to a professional. 

Sometimes, that medical malpractice is patient abandonment. And it happens more often than you might think.

Woman holding her head in her hands, upset and anxious.

What Is Patient Abandonment?

It’s when a doctor stops treatment, and ends a relationship with a patient – without a valid reason or notice. The provision of care ends prematurely, without giving the patient the proper chance to find a replacement. It’s a form of medical malpractice often called “medical abandonment” or “dumping.” This can and often does lead to a lawsuit against the doctor or hospital. Here are the specific requirements.

The Requirements

  1. Your doctor agreed to treat you, the patient.
  2. The treatment is in progress.
  3. The doctor abandons you when you still need medical attention (the critical stage of the treatment process).
  4. In this process of abandonment, the doctor fails to uphold the proper standard of care and as a result, is negligent.
  5. The doctor failed to provide you with the time you needed to find a new doctor to continue your treatment.
  6. The doctor failed to give you the proper information and resources to find a new doctor and continue treatment.
  7. The abandonment resulted in an injury to you, the patient.

When patients require immediate or long-term care, the medical facility should provide care in a timely manner. If the current provider cannot continue to provide care, they need to set their patient up with another provider who can. Ceasing the provision of care too early (before it’s “medically reasonable”) can harm a patient. And that’s where a lawsuit can come into play.

Patient Abandonment During The Opioid Crisis

The opioid crisis has had a huge impact on the healthcare industry. Patients may be at a greater risk of abandonment because of this amongst many other factors.

The Opioid Crisis

Thanks to the opioid crisis there’s a growing stigma attached to many pain medications. Doctors appear to be more reluctant to prescribe pain medication as a result, and patient abandonment may be on the rise.

This recent PNN survey of 3,600+ patients with pain delivered these results:

  • 29% patients had been abandoned by a doctor
  • 36% couldn’t find a new physician to treat their pain

The coming years may see a substantial rise in the number of patient desertion cases. It’s good to know what to do if you experience abandonment, and also how to protect yourself from it. Let’s start with some examples.

Examples Of Patient Abandonment

Still unclear of what abandonment can look like?

Here are some abandonment scenarios that can result in a lawsuit:

  • A doctor refuses to treat a patient at a critical stage because the patient has failed to pay the medical bill.
  • The doctor is unavailable to the patient for an unreasonable amount of time – and during this time the patient suffers harm.
  • A medical facility fails to reach out to the patient for an important follow-up appointment.
  • A doctor fails to assist a patient in establishing care at another facility when he/she can no longer provide care.
  • A doctor doesn’t adequately communicate with the new doctor after transferring a patient. The first doctor needs to provide the second doctor with all critical information. That means lab results, medical records, instructions, treatment notes, etc.

Generally, if your doctor stops treating you without a valid excuse or notice, that may be patient abandonment. But that said, there are plenty of perfectly reasonable and legal reasons for a doctor to refuse to treat a patient, or to end a relationship with a patient.

Here’s some legal reasons a doctor can stop treating, or refuse to treat a patient:

  • The doctor physically can’t treat the patient because of a debilitating illness (of the doctor’s).
  • A doctor refuses to treat a patient that has abused him or her, sexually, verbally or physically.
  • The doctor refuses to treat a patient whose condition is outside of his or her area of expertise.
  • The patient consistently no-shows or cancels appointments.
  • The patient refuses to follow the doctor’s reasonable advice.
  • The patient refuses to follow reasonable policies.
  • The doctor literally can’t treat the patient because there are no supplies left. 

So there you have it. Now, we’ve all heard horror stories about people being denied treatment in the ER. So what exactly does the law say about that?

Patient Abandonment In The Emergency Room

In 1986, the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act came into fruition. This law ensured patients had access to emergency services regardless of their ability to pay, or their citizenship status. Refusing emergency treatment to a patient when it is medically critical can be a form of patient abandonment.

So let’s say you go to the ER. It’s a legit emergency, and they refuse to treat you because you don’t have insurance. That’s grounds for a lawsuit. Because a hospital in the United States is legally required to treat a patient if it’s an emergency, whether they can pay or not.

How You Can Avoid Patient Abandonment & Prep To Prove Malpractice

If you’re careful and take an active role in your medical care, you can potentially protect yourself from patient abandonment.

Here’s what you can do to help avoid patient abandonment and prep to prove malpractice:

  • Before picking a healthcare provider, do as much research as possible. Look for issues like negligence and patient abandonment. Lots of poor reviews and negative comments? That might be a red flag.
  • Get a second opinion or see a similar practitioner while seeking treatment.
  • Compare healthcare services to determine which are best suited to your unique needs.
  • View patient reviews on platforms like Tripment, Opencare, or ZocDoc
  • Note any potential neglect you observe, like lack of proper care, or failure to answer phone calls for example.
  • Document your full experience from the get-go. This is arguably the most important part of protecting yourself if you become the victim of patient abandonment.
  • Keep a detailed record of all communications and communicate in writing as much as possible.

Proving Malpractice

You can hold a doctor liable for medical malpractice if he or she is negligent and you, the patient, consequently suffers. 

Ask yourself, “Would a similarly skilled medical professional have provided me with the same care and treatment under the same circumstances?” If the answer is no, and you’ve suffered harm because of sub-standard care, you may have a case for malpractice.

A medical malpractice case requires you to first outline this standard of care. Second, you must prove the doctor “breached” this standard of care and acted negligently. An expert attorney can help paint a picture of how the care  was substandard. 

Damages And Compensation

If a doctor stops treating a patient and has a valid excuse, then sets the patient up with another doctor so care is continued properly, that’s fine. In that case, no patient abandonment has occurred.

But, sometimes the doctor will terminate a relationship so abruptly and improperly, it causes the patient to suffer. 

Here are just some potential results of a doctor’s negligence:

Older woman wipes tears away.

Talk To A Medical Malpractice Attorney

Identifying a patient abandonment case can be tricky. Proving it in court is another ball game altogether. Speaking to an attorney with years of experience in medical malpractice can help.

Here at Hampton & King, we understand that suffering physically, emotionally, and financially due to negligence is not okay. That’s why we work hard to get you the justice and compensation you deserve. Contact our office today to set up a consultation and discuss your patient abandonment case. Don’t worry, it’s on us!

Patient Abandonment Lawsuit Quick Answers

What is Patient Abandonment?

It’s when a doctor terminates the patient’s relationship with the doctor without a good excuse, or without the proper notice. But not only that, the doctor also fails to give the patient the proper chance to replace them with another doctor or medical professional. That’s patient abandonment, a form of medical malpractice which can lead to a lawsuit.

Can I sue for medical abandonment?

Medical abandonment is a crime that can lead to a malpractice lawsuit against a doctor or business. You may want to consider a medical malpractice lawsuit if your doctor’s refusal to provide care (and failure to give you enough of a warning for you to find replacement in time) results in damage or harm.

How do you prove patient abandonment?

The following are general aspects of patient abandonment claims:

  • There was already a doctor-patient relationship in place.
  • While medical care was required, the physician abandoned the patient (without giving proper notice).
  • As a result of the abandonment, the patient sustained an injury.
  • The patient was unable to locate a substitute physician due to the unexpected desertion.

If you can prove the above, you probably have a case, and you’ll probably be compensated.

What is abandonment of care?

Abandonment of care is synonomous with patient abandonment. It’s when a doctor ends the physician-patient connection without providing enough warning for the patient to find replacement medical treatment. This is a violation of duty. For desertion to occur, the patient-physician connection must have been formed.

What’s a good example of abandonment in healthcare?

Let’s say a patient has cancer, and her doctor treats her regularly. But her medical bills become too expensive. She can’t pay because she doesn’t have the money to. The doctor stops treating her, because she isn’t paying. That may turn into a malpractice case that she can win. Because that’s probably patient abandonment.

Can a doctor just stop treating you?

Yes, your doctor has the authority to cease treating you for any reason that isn’t discriminatory. Your doctor, on the other hand, does not have the authority to discontinue the doctor-patient relationship at any time. To sever the doctor-patient relationship, your doctor must simply take a few easy measures.

What is the difference between abandonment and negligence?

When it comes to malpractice, abandonment and carelessness are similar. In both cases, the doctor or other provider harms the patient and violates the standard of care. The difference between abandonment and negligence is that abandonment entails the termination of therapy, whereas negligence involves the continuation of treatment but with improper or unsuitable therapies.

What is the term for when a physician refuses to visit a patient?

Patient desertion is a type of medical negligence in which a doctor terminates the doctor-patient relationship without giving the patient sufficient warning or an explanation and fails to give the patient the chance to find a suitable substitute care provider.

Is a doctor’s abandonment of a patient negligent?

When a patient is injured because of a doctor’s treatment discontinuation (“patient abandonment” or “medical abandonment”), the patient can file a malpractice case against them if the doctor was careless and failed to give him or her a proper notice in advance.