Are you in a doctor-patient relationship?

Sometimes, the existence of a doctor-patient relationship is unambiguous – for instance, when you’ve been regularly seeing the same doctor for years. But when, exactly, does this relationship begin?

The answer to this question can be extremely important for patients harmed by physician negligence: a successful medical malpractice claim can be made only against a doctor with whom you had a bona fide doctor-patient relationship. Yet, to the untrained eye, it can be difficult to recognize what constitutes a doctor-patient relationship.

Courts look to many factors when deciding whether a doctor-patient relationship existed in a medical malpractice case. Was there a contract between the physician and patient? Was the patient billed for the doctor’s services, or was a significant examination of the patient’s health conducted? Did the physician take some affirmative action in providing care to the patient? The presence or absence of any one of these factors is not determinative; the complete picture will be examined as a whole.

In the context of standard interactions between health care providers and patients, it often becomes evident that there was a doctor-patient relationship based on a breakdown of the factors. But, there are a few tricky areas in which the existence of a meaningful doctor-patient bond is not clear-cut.

One problem area is third-party opinions. When some third party (such as an insurer, prospective employer, personal injury attorney or workers comp lawyer) hires a doctor to give an independent opinion about a patient, generally a doctor-patient relationship is not established. However, even in this context, doctors must report any serious or life-threatening conditions they discover or face legal liability.

Advice that passes between doctors and patients solely by electronic means (via telephone or the internet) may or may not establish a doctor-patient relationship. Again, courts will look at the facts of the individual circumstances. If the doctor only provided general, generic or hypothetical advice electronically, it is unlikely a doctor-patient relationship has been established. However, if the physician took an affirmative action to become involved in the patient’s care, say, by asking the patient to come for an in person consultation, a court would probably see it as cementing the existence of a doctor-patient relationship.

Needless to say, determining when you are in a doctor-patient relationship is not always an easy feat. But, when it comes to a medical malpractice lawsuit, it is critically important.

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