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Health Care Law - A Physician's Duty To Provide Medical Treatment

patient relationship fiduciary act

Medical malpractice dominates the headlines, but a more basic legal question involving medical care is the affirmative duty, if any, to provide medical treatment. The historical rule is that a physician has no duty to accept a patient, regardless of the severity of the illness. A physician's relationship with a patient was understood to be a voluntary, contracted one. Once the relationship was established, the physician was under a legal obligation to provide medical treatment and was a fiduciary in this respect. (A fiduciary is a person with a duty to act primarily for the benefit of another.)

Once the physician-patient relationship exists, the physician can be held liable for an intentional refusal of care or treatment, under the theory of ABANDONMENT. (Abandonment is an intentional act; negligent lack of care or treatment is medical malpractice.) When a treatment relationship exists, the physician must provide all necessary treatment to a patient unless the relationship is ended by the patient or by the physician, provided that the physician gives the patient sufficient notice to seek another source of medical care. Most doctors and hospitals routinely ensure that alternative sources of treatment—other doctors or hospitals—are made available for patients whose care is being discontinued.

The discontinuation of care involves significant economic issues. Reimbursement procedures often limit or cut off the funding for a particular patient's care. Under the diagnosis-related group (DRG) system of MEDICARE, part A, 42 U.S.C. § 1395c, a hospital is paid a pre-set amount for the treatment of a particular diagnosis, regardless of the actual cost of treatment. Patients who are covered by private insurance or HMOs may lose their coverage if they fail to pay premiums. Physicians and hospitals must act carefully when this happens, because the fiduciary nature of the relationship between provider and patient is not changed by a patient's unexpected inability to pay. Health care providers must notify a patient and even must help to secure alternative care when funds are not reimbursed as expected.

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