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FAQ: What is the proper way to terminate the physician-patient relationship?

June 24, 2019
Area(s) of Interest: California Physician's Legal Handbook 


There are numerous reasons why a physician may terminate the physician-patient relationship. Physicians, however, should be aware of potential liability, including for patient abandonment, if the relationship is not properly terminated. 

In general, the physician-patient relationship can be terminated in two ways without creating liability for abandonment: 1) the physician ends the relationship after giving the patient notice, a reasonable opportunity to find substitute care and the information necessary to obtain the patient’s medical records, or 2) the patient ends the relationship.

Physicians should send written notice to the patient by certified mail, return receipt requested. The physician should continue to treat the patient until he or she has had a reasonable time to find an alternative source of care. The amount of time necessary may depend upon such factors as the acuteness of the patient’s medical condition, the availability and accessibility of alternative care, and the patient’s ability to afford such care.

While physicians do have discretion as to whether to provide services to any particular person, they should be aware that there are legal and ethical constraints on the scope of that discretion such as contractual obligations and non-discrimination laws.

For more information about terminating the Physician-Patient Relationship, see CMA health law library document #3503, “Termination of the Physician-Patient Relationship.”

This document, as well as the rest of the California Medical Association (CMA) online health law library, is available free to members at cmadocs.org/health-law-library. Nonmembers can purchase documents for $2 per page.

Contact: CMA Legal Information Line, (800) 786-4262 or legalinfo@cmadocs.org.

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