by Ellen Foell, Heartbeat International Legal Counsel
“A patient-physician relationship is generally formed when a physician affirmatively acts in a patient’s case by examining, diagnosing, treating, or agreeing to do so.
"Once the physician consensually enters into a relationship with a patient in any of these ways, a legal contract is formed in which the physician owes a duty to that patient to continue to treat or properly terminate the relationship.”
- Valarie Blake
This sounds like a trick question a Pharisee might ask to entrap Jesus.
The answer seems fairly straightforward. The patient is anyone who receives medical services from a physician. But then, there is a follow-up question: "When is my patient no longer my patient?" In other words, when does the legal obligation to the patient end?
The physician and the clients who walk through the center’s doors are indispensable to its existence as a medical pregnancy clinic. Without the client-patients, there would be no need for the medical center to exist. Without the medical director, the center has no legal authority to provide any of its critical life-changing medical services, including ultrasounds and sexually transmitted infection and disease testing.
The medical director’s presence in name, policy-setting, procedure, and writing standing orders creates a patient-physician relationship. It runs between the physician and every client who walks through your doors to receive medical service.
However, much like ambulatory care clinics, the relationship between the physician in a medical pregnancy center and patient is limited in time and treatment, so the center must set distinct parameters to avoid confusion for the patient and liability for the center. Failure of the center to be clear in setting and communicating those parameters to the patient can create liability-laden situations.
The best way for centers to avoid liability issues is to be up-front in communicating the parameters of the patient-physician relationship with each client. In the eyes of the law, the physician-patient relationship continues if the following three factors are present, with the third factor posing the most relevance for pregnancy help centers:
- The client-patient needs follow-up treatment from a physician,
- The client-patient has a reasonable expectation of continued treatment, and
- The physician has not clearly and explicitly ended the relationship.
It is easy to see how a client-patient could leave a center with the impression that she and the medical director have now established a continuous patient-physician relationship. Treatment and care for a pregnant woman typically involves multiple doctor visits, additional ultrasounds, and can include additional procedures as well.
Further, since many of the women coming to a medical pregnancy clinic may not have an existing relationship with a physician, a client-patient might naturally conclude that the relationship would continue beyond the parameters of that place (the center) and time (the appointment).
That is, the client-patient might have a reasonable expectation of continued services because she clearly requires continued treatment. The question is, “From whom?” That question can and must be addressed in the context of clear and explicit communication to the client that the patient-physician relationship is terminated upon her leaving the pregnancy medical clinic, and—if needed—receipt of referrals for obstetrician-gynecologists, in keeping with standard pregnancy medical center practice.
If the client is clearly and explicitly informed—verbally and in writing—that no continuing patient-physician relationship continues after the verification of pregnancy and/or ultrasound, then the center and its medical director will have fulfilled their legal duty to the client. In fact, most pregnancy medical centers have a Consent and Release Form for the client to sign, indicating this agreement.
Heartbeat International was recently asked whether giving a regimen of prenatal vitamins or prescribing prenatal vitamins constituted a continuation of the patient-physician relationship, possibly exposing the center to liability. The question was raised for obvious reasons: Prenatal vitamins tend to be something pregnant women take throughout the course of their pregnancy, implying continuing treatment.
Arguably, prescribing the vitamins could be interpreted to constitute action taken pursuant to the patient-physician relationship. Thus, a center will want to ensure that its Consent and Release Form is broad enough to encompass the prescription for vitamins.
Pregnancy help medical clinics daily provide excellent and caring life-saving services. In the event that a client-patient is pregnant, she should be given referrals for other service providers.
Centers should have an attorney draft a Consent and Release Form, which should be given and explained to the client-patient. This paperwork should clearly state that no follow-up care will be provided, and that the patient-physician relationship is terminated.
That form must be signed by both center staff and the client-patient, with a signed copy given to the client-patient and a copy kept in the client-patient’s medical file. In following these guidelines, a center will have fulfilled its obligation to the client-patient, and to the law.
Go and do likewise!