The Doctor-Patient Relationship

The existence of a doctor-patient relationship, like other professional relationships, offers patents certain protections. For example, if a doctor-patient relationship does not exist, the doctor is not bound by a code of ethics and cannot be held liable for medical malpractice.

Determining whether a doctor-patient relationship exists is often a simple task. Courts have found that in the following instances such a relationship exists:

  • There was a contract between the doctor and patient
  • There is a history of the relationship and a physical exam was done
  • The physician billed the patient for services
  • The physician issued a medical opinion
  • The physician discussed the patient's health issue in specific and not general terms.

Determining the Relationship Can Be Difficult

Not all doctor-patient encounters are as clear as the above examples; in these cases, it is more difficult to prove a doctor-patient relationship. For example, doctors are often asked by third parties such as insurance companies and employers to give an opinion about a patient's health. In such cases, there is not a doctor-patient relationship. However, if a serious of life-threatening condition is discovered during the exam, the doctor can be liable if he does not inform the patient of the condition.

In addition, with modern technology, it is more common now that doctors are called to give an opinion over the phone or by Internet. In general, a doctor-patient relationship is established if any of the above factors are established. However, if the doctor does not give a medical opinion, but merely suggests that the patient schedule an appointment for further examination, no relationship has been formed.

Finally, if a patient encounters a doctor in a supermarket or social gathering and asks him or her a medical question, generally no relationship is formed. However, a relationship is formed if the doctor asks about the person's medical history and gives a medical opinion.

A simple rule of thumb to determining the existence of a doctor-patient relationship is if the doctor took clear action to diagnose or treat the patent's specific condition, there is probably a relationship. Conversely, if the doctor merely discussed the patient's health in a hypothetical or general way, there is likely not a relationship. Establishing a doctor-patient relationship is the necessary first step in holding a negligent doctor liable for the harm he or she causes the patient.

Source: "Is This a Real Doctor-Patient Relationship?: Situations in Which You Won't Be Held Liable," Anthony Francis, Medscape.com, 3/1/12

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