What Is Patient Abandonment?

When a patient is harmed by a doctor's failure to end treatment properly, it could amount to medical malpractice.

By , Attorney · University of Maryland School of Law
Updated by David Goguen, J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Patient abandonment is a specific form of medical malpractice that can occur when a doctor or other health care provider ends the doctor-patient relationship:

  • without reasonable notice or a reasonable excuse, and
  • while failing to provide the patient with an opportunity to find a qualified replacement care provider.

In this article, we'll define patient abandonment, explore scenarios that could qualify as patient abandonment, and discuss this concept in the context of a medical malpractice lawsuit.

The Elements of Patient Abandonment

Whether or not patient abandonment has occurred is a very fact-specific issue, and a doctor's potential legal liability can vary from state to state. But there are certain common elements that typically must exist in order for patient abandonment to rise to the level of medical malpractice:

  • The doctor-patient relationship must be established. This means that the physician must have agreed to treat the patient, and treatment must be underway.
  • The abandonment must take place when the patient is still in need of medical attention—this is known as a "critical stage" of the treatment process.
  • The abandonment must have amounted to medical negligence, considering the appropriate medical standard of care under the circumstances.
  • The abandonment must have taken place so abruptly that the patient did not have enough time or resources to find a suitable replacement physician to take over treatment.
  • The patient must suffer an injury ("damages" in the language of the law) as a direct result of the patient abandonment.

Should I File a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit for Patient Abandonment?

The last element we laid out in the section above (injury to the patient) is often a crucial consideration when answering this question.

Let's say it's fairly clear that your doctor or other health care provider's conduct fell below accepted standards of medical care, and there's a good case for patient abandonment. If that mistake didn't cause you any significant harm (it didn't worsen an existing health problem or lead to any new ones, for example) it might not be worth it to bring a medical malpractice lawsuit.

On the other hand, let's say the defendant's management of your care left you unable to get prompt and necessary treatment, which ended up seriously jeopardizing your health and leading to extensive emergency intervention. In that situation, the health care provider's mistake was a costly one in terms of additional medical care and "pain and suffering," and it might make sense to pursue a medical malpractice case.

Learn more about medical malpractice lawsuits:

Examples of Patient Abandonment

There are many real-world situations in which a doctor might terminate a relationship with a patient without a reasonable excuse.

For example, if a doctor intentionally refuses to treat a patient who has failed to pay his or her medical bill, that is often considered unjustified. And if a doctor is unavailable for an unreasonable amount of time when a patient needs medical care (and so is the backup or "on call" doctor) that could amount to patient abandonment if the patient ends up suffering harm as a result.

It should be noted that patient abandonment can also occur between other kinds of health care providers and the patient—not just between the physician and the patient. For example, if a nurse-patient relationship has been established, and the same legal elements we discussed above are present, then the patient may have a valid medical malpractice claim based on patient abandonment.

Patient abandonment can also occur when:

  • a hospital or other care facility has inadequate staffing
  • a patient is discharged too soon
  • the medical staff fails to reach out to a patient who has missed an important follow-up appointment
  • the medical staff fails to communicate an urgent question from the patient to the doctor, or
  • the medical staff schedules an appointment too far in the future, resulting in preventable harm to the patient as their condition worsens.

When It's Probably Not Patient Abandonment

Not every situation where a doctor stops treating a patient leads to an actionable claim for medical malpractice. Most don't, in fact.

Valid reasons to end a doctor-patient relationship include:

  • the doctor has insufficient skills to provide adequate treatment to the patient
  • there are insufficient supplies or resources to provide adequate treatment to the patient
  • ethical or legal conflicts arise during the treatment process
  • the patient has violated the physician's policies
  • the patient has numerous cancelled or missed appointments
  • the patient refuses to comply with the physician's recommendations, and
  • the patient demonstrates inappropriate behavior, such as making sexual advances or engaging in verbal abuse.

If a valid reason exists, then the physician can take steps to terminate the relationship in an appropriate manner, and attempt to avoid liability. That means, the physician should:

  • provide the patient with written notice of the termination along with a valid reason for the decision
  • continue to treat the patient for a reasonable period of time to allow the patient to arrange for alternative care from another competent physician
  • recommend another qualified physician, and
  • once the patient has secured another physician and has signed an authorization, transfer the patient's medical records to the new physician in a reasonable and timely manner.

Getting Help With a Potential Patient Abandonment Case

Understanding how patient abandonment is defined is important if you're considering taking legal action over a health care provider's failure to properly manage your car. But if you've read this far and you think you have a valid medical malpractice case, it might make sense to discuss your situation with a legal professional.

Medical malpractice lawsuits are complicated on a number of fronts: from analyzing complex medical and legal issues to navigating special court rules for filing these kinds of cases. Your lawyer will have the expertise and experience to put your best claim together, often with the assistance of a skilled medical expert or two.

Learn more about working with a medical malpractice lawyer.

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