5 minute read

Patient Abandonment: What It Is & What It Isn't

When it comes to End-of-Life planning, you need a medical plan that protects you from serious issues, like patient abandonment. Educate yourself here.

Patient abandonment is something that’s not often talked about, yet it’s an extremely serious issue. It needs attention and awareness, so it can be brought to the forefront of patient advocacy. Everyone should be educated on the topic, because not knowing the implications is the root of the problem. 

Unfortunately, patient abandonment is a real possibility if you don’t protect yourself with a solid medical plan of action. Here, we’ll educate you, so you can protect yourself and your loved ones in the future. 

What is Patient Abandonment?

Patient abandonment is a type of medical malpractice. It comes into play when a physician prematurely abandons a doctor-patient relationship with no notice and/or without a reasonable excuse. There’s a fine line, and understanding what constitutes this potentially-devastating act of abandonment is important.  

The following must be true for abandonment to be proven:

  • Relationship was established and clearly existed: For true abandonment to apply, the physician must have already agreed to and had begun treating the patient.

  • Medical care was still necessary: In order for patient abandonment to be claimed, the actual abandonment must have happened during a point in time when a patient still needed medical attention. This is also what’s known as the “critical stage” of treatment.

  • Abandonment of care happened swiftly and abruptly: To truly be considered patient abandonment, the physician must have left or abandoned the patient so quickly, there was no time to look for and establish new care and treatment with an alternative care provider.

  • Injury to the patient resulted: The final point in determining patient abandonment is proving that after the patient was abandoned, injury occurred as a direct result.

What is Not Patient Abandonment? 

Now that we’ve covered what patient abandonment is, we should look at what it is not, since there can be some confusion here. If you have any questions about what constitutes patient abandonment, any of the following reasons could prevent you from claiming medical malpractice as a result of abandonment.

  • Doctor lacks necessary skills: If a doctor truly is not skilled in any area for him or her to offer sufficient treatment, it can be deemed acceptable to end the relationship with the patient, provided notice is given.

  • Doctor has limited (or no) resources or supplies: If a doctor does not have sufficient resources or supplies that would allow him or her to offer the best care to the patient, it would be acceptable to end the relationship and suggest the patient find new medical care elsewhere.

  • Doctor is concerned with legal or ethical conflicts: Any time a legal or ethical situation comes up, a doctor is fully within his or her right to decide not to treat the patient any longer.

  • Patient knowingly (or unknowingly) violates policies: Physicians have policies in place in order to protect them, their staff and their practice. If a patient knowingly (or sometimes even unknowingly) violates these policies, the doctor can let the patient know that they are ending the relationship.

  • Patient misses or cancels numerous appointments: Numerous missed or canceled appointments could be grounds for a doctor deciding not to treat a patient anymore.

  • Patient exhibits inappropriate or unacceptable behavior: Doctors are under no obligation to treat a patient who subjects them to verbal abuse or inappropriate behavior (such as sexual advances). Should either of these occur, the doctor is well within his or her rights to end the relationship.

  • Refusal to comply: That old saying you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink rings true in the medical world, too. If a doctor sees a patient who refuses to comply or follow “doctor’s orders,” they may give notice and terminate care.

Examples of Patient Abandonment

There are a number of common examples of patient abandonment that we see today. It can be found in professional medical settings like hospitals, as well as in private practice offices. There are a few types that are more obvious.

  • Unintentional abandonment: With an overrun healthcare system and weary doctors and staff trying to run busy practices, patients can get lost in the shuffle. Though it may not be intentional, even if a doctor didn’t plan to abandon a patient, a failure to follow up appropriately could be deemed abandonment.

  • Lack of notes and instructions to a new physician: Doctors must not only allow a patient the time to find a new doctor, they must also provide the new doctor with detailed medical records. These records can be critical in allowing a new provider to efficiently and effectively care for a patient.

  • Failure to pay: It’s not justifiable to refuse treatment during a critical stage if a patient can’t pay for, or doesn’t have insurance to cover, a treatment. Note that the “critical stage” part is important here - if a patient isn’t in direct need of treatment, a physician can actually legally refuse services due to lack of payment.

  • Unavailability: If a physician fails to return a call or follow up regarding a patient’s concern in a “reasonable” amount of time, this could be considered abandonment.

  • Inadequate staffing: If a hospital or practice doesn’t have adequate staffing that allows them to appropriately care for a patient, this could also be considered another form of patient abandonment.

  • Failure to reach out after an important or needed but missed follow-up appointment: Medical staff have the responsibility to ensure patients are aware of important and needed follow-up appointments. Failing to reach out after a missed appointment that the patient needs might be abandonment.

  • Appointments scheduled too far out: If an appointment is time-sensitive, yet scheduled too far out to allow for effective care, a patient can claim abandonment.

Common Questions About Patient Abandonment Laws

Despite patient abandonment laws being fairly clear cut, many people – especially if they suspect they’ve been abandoned – have questions about the subject. 

Is Patient Abandonment a Crime?

Yes, patient abandonment is a crime that can result in a suit against a doctor or practice. If a doctor’s denied care results in injury or harm, a medical malpractice lawsuit may be appropriate. Forms of injury or harm can include pain, suffering, losing earning capability, additional future treatment costs or even a loss of enjoyment of living life.  

What is the Difference Between Patient Abandonment and Negligence?

While patient abandonment and negligence are similar in that both would involve some form of patient harm resulting from a standard of care failure, there is a slight difference between the two.

Abandonment involves a cessation of treatment with no notice and no opportunity for a patient to find additional treatment elsewhere. Negligence, by contrast, involves inappropriate or flat out incorrect treatment that a doctor provided to the patient. 

When Do Most Cases of Patient Abandonment Occur?

Most patient abandonment cases occur when a doctor, hospital or medical facility inappropriately and abruptly ends a relationship with a patient. Because true abandonment can only happen during the critical care phase, where it’s crucial a patient gets the care they need for their medical condition, abandonment tends to happen when patients are at their most vulnerable point.

Patient advocacy plays a huge part in overcoming the problem of patient abandonment in our healthcare system.

Patient Abandonment & Your Estate Plan - How to Protect Yourself

The most important time for you to protect yourself and focus on ensuring you receive the medical care you need…is this exact moment, right now. 

You simply cannot (and should not) wait to create a future medical plan that can protect you, and your loved ones, against any form of medical mistreatment, including abandonment. Preparing for the future with a solid Estate Plan includes making plans like appointing your healthcare proxy or Healthcare Power of Attorney (POA). Additionally, establishing an End-of-Life plan though a Living Will or other legal document is not only smart, it’s effective in protecting yourself. 

Give yourself – and those who love you most – the peace of mind and security that comes with an Estate Plan that includes everything you need for maximum protection against healthcare abandonment. 

Trust & Will has what you need to create a comprehensive, effective all-inclusive plan that includes your healthcare wishes for the future. From what type of End-of-Life care you would want, to what types of services you envision after you pass away, we can help you create a plan that protects and provides for your future. 

We’re committed to educating and offering the resources you need to create and maintain an Estate Plan that covers all your bases. From guardianship to personal healthcare decisions, Trust & Will is here for you. Learn more about the services we offer today! 

Is there a question here we didn’t answer? Reach out to us today or Chat with a live member support representative!


Subscribe to our newsletter for expert estate planning tips, trends and industry news.

    • Trust Pilot
    • Pledge 1%
    • Certified B Corporation
    • Better Business Bureau Accredited