What Is Patient Abandonment?

What Is Patient Abandonment?

When patients go to the hospital or to their doctors’ offices while experiencing medical conditions or after having suffered injuries, they are frequently at their most vulnerable. Patients might be harmed when their doctors refuse to provide them with treatment or by ending care before it is medically reasonable. Patient abandonment occurs when a doctor abandons a patient who needs medical care, and it can give rise to a viable medical malpractice claim. Here is some information about patient abandonment from the attorneys at Raynes & Lawn.

Abandonment During Emergency Situations

Hospitals are required to treat patients who are experiencing emergency medical issues under federal law. They must do so regardless of whether the patients have insurance or the ability to pay. They also cannot refuse treatment based on a patient’s immigration status or inability to speak English under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). Failing to comply with the act can result in liability through a lawsuit filed by the patient who was refused treatment, and the facility can also be fined up to $50,000 as an additional penalty.

Patient Abandonment as Medical Malpractice

Even when the EMTALA does not apply, patients might still have grounds to file medical malpractice claims when they have been abandoned. Proving this type of claim will require the patient to present evidence about the expected standard of care under his or her circumstances, the fact that the provider’s abandonment amounted to a deviation from the standard of care, that the abandonment caused the patient to suffer injuries, and that the abandonment resulted in damages.

Inadvertent Patient Abandonment

One scenario of patient abandonment occurs when a doctor forgets about a patient. This might happen in a medical facility when details about the patient are not properly entered into the hospital’s computer system. Even though the doctor did not intend to abandon the patient, he or she still has a duty of care to continue treatment until the patient is able to be properly discharged.

Patient Abandonment When Transferring Care

After a doctor has started treating a patient, he or she must also ensure that the treatment he or she provides is properly terminated and at the right time. When patients are transferred to other doctors, their new doctors must be properly informed by the original treating physicians. Patient abandonment might occur when the initial doctors fail to properly inform the new doctors about the details of the patients’ cases or provide instructions.

Early Discharge Based on Inability to Pay

Doctors and hospitals are not allowed to terminate a patient’s care when the patient is in a critical stage based on his or her inability to pay for his or her care. However, if the patient has been stabilized and has been provided with adequate notice, he or she can be discharged from treatment.

Patient Abandonment Examples

Doctors and hospitals might terminate care without a good reason in many different situations. When a patient’s care is ended early while he or she is in a critical stage of treatment, and the patient is harmed as a result, he or she may have grounds to pursue a medical malpractice claim.

For example, if a hospital discharges a patient early because he or she is homeless, the hospital and the treating emergency room doctor might be liable for medical malpractice. One case that illustrates this issue involved a homeless woman who was admitted to a psychiatric hospital while experiencing serious mental and physical health problems. The hospital discharged her 19 days after her admission while the woman was severely disoriented and still in poor health. The woman died within 30 hours of her early discharge, and her family sued.

Doctors can also abandon patients by terminating treatment early while their patients are still in critical treatment stages. For example, if an oncologist has formed a doctor-patient relationship with someone who has advanced cancer but suddenly terminates treatment while the patient is still critical, the oncologist might be liable for medical malpractice if the patient suffers harm because of his or her abandonment.

Other times when patient abandonment might occur include the following:

  • Inadequately staffed hospital
  • Failing to communicate an important question from the patient to the physician
  • Doctor being unavailable to the patient for an unreasonably long time
  • Failing to provide enough notice to a patient to allow him or her to find another doctor

When Ending Treatment Is Not Patient Abandonment

There are many valid reasons why a doctor might end treatment, including the following:

  • The patient requires special care that the doctor cannot provide.
  • The doctor does not have the resources or supplies needed to adequately treat the patient.
  • An ethical or legal conflict arises during the course of treatment.
  • The patient has repeatedly canceled or missed appointments.
  • The patient has violated the policies of the doctor.
  • The patient refuses to follow the doctor’s recommendations.
  • The patient behaves inappropriately, including verbal abuse, physical abuse, or making sexual advances.

When a doctor has a valid reason to terminate a patient’s care, he or she can do so appropriately and avoid liability. In this type of case, the doctor should provide written notice of the termination of the patient’s care together with the reason why the doctor has made this decision. The doctor should still treat the patient for a reasonable amount of time so that the patient can arrange to get care from a different doctor. Finally, when the patient finds a new doctor, the original doctor must send his or her medical records to the new doctor for good continuity of care.

Consult a Lawyer

If you experienced serious harm because you were abandoned by a doctor or hospital, you should speak to an experienced lawyer at Raynes & Lawn. Call us today at 1-800-535-1797 for a free consultation.

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