Can a Doctor Refuse to Treat a Patient?

Many people believe they have a right to health care in the United States. In reality, the laws only obligate physicians to treat patients under certain circumstances. A physician can, in many cases, legally refuse to treat you and refer you to a different practice.

When Doctors Can’t Refuse to Treat a Patient

Most private medical centers, including hospitals, reserve the right to deny treatment for anything less than emergency circumstances. They can choose not to accept patients based on an inability to pay or for other, arbitrary reasons. Public hospitals, on the other hand, must accept almost all patients regardless of their situations.

The Emergency Medical and Treatment Labor Act (EMTLA) covers treatment facilities’ duties to treat those experiencing emergency situations. If a person needs immediate medical attention, both private and public care facilities must take steps to stabilize the individual. Physicians who receive patient referrals from emergency departments must also provide a certain amount of care. In addition to emergency treatment obligations, doctors cannot refuse to treat patients based on gender, sex, race, or other discriminatory grounds.

While physicians can’t refuse care to individuals under these situations, they can delay care. Emergency rooms and urgent care facilities use triage practices to determine the order of patient care. Those experiencing clear emergencies will always receive top priority. Someone with a cold or minor injury may legally wait hours to see a doctor.

When Doctors Can Refuse Treatment

A public or private facility can legally refuse to admit or treat a patient in an emergency setting if:

  • The individual engages in clear drug-seeking behaviors
  • The individual exhibits signs of serious injury or illness delusions without evidence of actual harm
  • The individual engages in threatening, dangerous, or disruptive behaviors in the facility

Under non-emergency circumstances, a private practice physician can refuse treatment if:

  • His or her personal beliefs would interfere with the doctor-patient relationship
  • The patient is a medical malpractice attorney
  • The practice does not partner with a patient’s insurer
  • The patient cannot pay for the services provided
  • The practice does not want to take on new patients

Private practitioners can also end a doctor-patient relationship at any time. Unless a physician’s treatment refusal directly results in a new medical condition or the imminent worsening of an existing one, he or she can make independent treatment conditions.

What to Do If You Suffered an Injury Associated with a Doctor’s Treatment Refusal

If a doctor wrongfully refused to treat you, you may have a valid malpractice claim against the physician or the treatment facility. As soon as you suspect malpractice, take the following steps:

  • Seek medical attention elsewhere. Don’t wait for your symptoms to worsen. Go to a public health care facility or schedule an appointment with a different doctor for treatment.
  • Gather your records. Collect bills, medical records, and other information associated with your doctor-patient relationship. Include records from doctors who treated you after you experience the refusal of care.
  • Record your experience. Write down your experiences with the physician including information about scheduling, diagnoses, consultations, and treatment prior to the refusal of care, if applicable.

Not all treatment refusals are justified. After a wrongful medical refusal, contact a local Kansas City personal injury attorney experienced in medical malpractice claims. During a free case evaluation, an attorney can offer case-specific advice you can use to make an informed decision about pursuing a legal claim.