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Doctor-patient relationships can exist when they haven’t even met

Medical MalpracticeNews   November 8, 2017

Can a doctor-patient relationship really exist when neither the doctor nor the patient have met? What about when the patient doesn’t even know the doctor’s name?

Actually, increasingly, the courts are saying that it’s a possibility that should be left up to the jury to decide.

The situation is created by what is often referred to as “curbside consults.” That’s when a primary care physician or other doctor stops someone — usually a specialist higher up on the medical food chain — in the hallway, at the elevator or even in a quick phone call and says, “Hey, I have a problem with a patient I can’t figure out. Can I get your take on it?”

Doctors do it all the time. The question for the courts is when that “curbside consult” is actually an official consultation — even if it is never billed for as a formal consultation and the patient is never directly examined by the consulting physician.

The answer has big repercussions not only for the physician but the victims of medical malpractice. Physicians who create a relationship with that patient have a responsibility, or duty of care, toward that patient — if something goes wrong and there’s negligence involved, the consulting physician is just as liable as everyone else on the patient’s care team. That means the victim of malpractice has the freedom to sue the consulting physician as well as any other parties involved.

The difference between what creates a duty of care and what doesn’t can be very fine.

For example, a doctor who is asked for an informal consult by the treating physician can be given a rundown of the symptoms and offer an opinion — but unless he or she ordered a test, looked at test results that were already taken or provided other medical services like a recommendation for care — the doctor didn’t create an actual relationship with the patient. Essentially, the more specific the consult and advice, the greater the likelihood that there will be a doctor-patient relationship that’s valid.

Anyone who believes that they’ve suffered from negligent medical care should talk to an attorney as promptly as possible about their rights.

Source: The Doctors Company, “Curbside Consultations,” Susan Shepard, Oct. 4, 2017