The Doctor/Patient Relationship

  • When does the doctor/patient relationship officially begin?

    Today, it is often unclear when the doctor/patient relationship begins, and with the advent of managed care, this issue has become even more complex. Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) may deem the doctor/patient relationship to begin when the physician receives a list of patients who have chosen the physician as their primary attending. Thus, physicians must carefully review the lists received and protest to the MCO those patients the physician does not wish to accept. The relationship may otherwise be determined to begin when an appointment has been made, or when some other mechanism occurs by which an expectation of care arises, for example when an on-call physician treats a patient in the Emergency Department and advises the patient to be seen for a follow-up visit in his/her office at a defined time. If a doctor on-call has neither been called in for a consultation by the Emergency Department physician, nor treated the patient in the Emergency Department, the receipt of a courtesy copy of the Emergency Room record does not create a doctor/patient relationship. However, hospital bylaws may require such a follow-up appointment.

  • How do I discharge a patient from care?

    To discharge a patient from care, you must notify the patient in writing. You have the option of giving the patient a defined reason. If the patient has been non-compliant with treatment or appointments, or if the dentist/patient relationship has been disturbed by litigation, non-payment, or threats and abusive behavior by the patient or a family member you may state a reason for discharge, i.e. there has been a disruption in the doctor/patient relationship. You should document if the patient is being discharged for non-compliance, i.e. “you have been non-compliant with my recommendations for care and treatment.” If you have received a request for records from an attorney, have been sued by the patient, or are merely uncomfortable in continuing to treat the patient, a reason does not have to be stated or you may use the relationship disruption as the reason. Do give the patient a reasonable amount of time to seek a new physician, e.g. 30 days from the date of the letter, during which time you will be available for emergencies only. The letter should provide resources which will assist the patient in obtaining a new physician, such as the names and phone numbers of the county medical society. We do not recommend that you list the names of specific physicians. If the patient belongs to an HMO, review their rules regarding initiation and discontinuance of the doctor/patient relationship. The MLMIC Legal Department has sample form letters which can be modified for your use for discharging patients from your care. Remember, patients with urgent or serious dental conditions should not be discharged without immediate access to alternative care.

  • Must I continue to see a patient whose insurance I do not accept merely because I have seen the patient once in the Emergency Department as the on-call physician?

    The answer to this depends both on the patient’s condition and the hospital by-law requirements. If the patient’s immediate problem has been resolved, unless the by-laws require you to provide a follow-up visit, you are not obligated to see that patient in your office. However, if the patient is in need of further care and the problem can be resolved in one or two office visits, you should probably see the patient and then discharge him/her from care by letter. If the patient continues to have an urgent or serious medical problem which requires continued care, you must be sure he/she has alternative and uninterrupted treatment prior to discharging him/her. If you are unable to do so, then you must complete the course of treatment for that medical problem, before discharging the patient from care.

Documentation in the Medical Record

  • Why is the appearance of the medical record so important in a malpractice dispute?

    The medical record is the actual record of treatment provided to the patient, and its appearance is extremely important to your defense. It specifically describes the complete history, evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, and care of a patient; and, therefore, it is of maximum value in terms of its accuracy and credibility, especially when used in legal proceedings. Remember, if you didn’t chart it, you didn’t do it. The medical record should be precise, neat, complete, and legible, and it should be written so that any other doctor who has a reason to pick up the record knows exactly what has been done for the patient, when it has been done, and why.

  • How do I appropriately document the medical record

    Entries in the medical record must be contemporaneous with treatment and should be written legibly in ink or transcribed. Be sure to use a consistent style for your entries. If your records are ever challenged in court, consistency will impart credibility to your records and will demonstrate your professionalism in maintaining them. You must accurately record both positive and negative findings, and enter the time and date of all entries, signing each one. All entries should follow sequentially; do not leave any spaces between them. If you make an incorrect entry, cross it out by drawing a single line through it, writing the word error, and initialing and dating the correction. Do not, under any circumstances, use white-out or erase an entry. Both techniques suggest you have something to hide. Each correction should be made as it happens with an explanation for the correction to preserve the record’s integrity. Be sure to record missed appointments and any failure by the patient to accept or follow instructions. This type of information will be helpful in defending a future court action. Always be sure to record your observations in an objective and dispassionate manner. The medical record is not the place to settle disputes, assign blame, or write derogatory remarks. Such superfluous entries seem to communicate a lack of professionalism and may raise doubts about the record’s overall credibility.

Retention and Release of Medical Records

  • How long must I retain medical records?

    Medical records of non-obstetrical adult patients and mammograms should be retained for 10 years from the date of submission of the last claim for payment. Records of minors, that is persons under the age of 18, must be retained for at least 10 years from the date of submission of the last claim for payment, or when the minor reaches the age of 20-1/2, whichever is longer. Medical records of obstetrical patients must be retained for the same period as minors. If the birth was viable, but the child did not survive, the records must be retained for 10 years from the date of submission of the last claim for payment. These time periods are recommended in view of state and federal statutes and regulations, pertaining to malpractice and healthcare offenses.

  • What documents do I need to release medical records to someone other than a patient?

    You must have an authorization or release form signed by the patient or by an individual legally authorized to request healthcare information. The authorization must be dated and must designate the name of the party who is releasing the record and to whom the records are to be released. A release that states “to bearer” is not acceptable. The authorization or release form must state the reason for the authorization (“at my request” is sufficient) and must specify the medical information to be released (e.g., “all my records”). Each authorization form must contain an expiration date or event. In addition, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires that certain statements be included in each authorization form. Thus, you must insure that the authorization form is HIPAA compliant and that it contains all of the required elements. Although notarization is not mandated by law, you may as a policy decision require that the signature on the authorization be notarized. We recommend comparing the patient’s signature on the release form to his/her signature in the chart. If the patient is not the person who signed the authorization, then a copy of a legal document permitting the designee to sign the authorization must be also obtained. These may include, for example, healthcare proxy documents or court papers appointing the person as the administrator or executor of a deceased patient’s estate. In unusual circumstances, such as those concerning custody or divorce, patient incompetence, or death, you should contact your attorney to discuss how to proceed.

  • What type of information requires specific or special authorizations to release the medical record?

    Any medical records containing HIV-related information, the records from an alcohol or drug treatment program, and/or psychiatric or mental health facility records require a specific and special authorization. The New York State Department of Health HIPAA compliant HIV authorization is available on the DOH website. Psychotherapy notes that receive heightened protection are defined by HIPAA as notes recorded by a mental health professional documenting or analyzing the contents of a conversation during a counseling session. They are particularly protected under HIPAA only if maintained separately from the record. Release without authorization is limited to situations defined under the law, i.e. patient treatment by the originator of the notes, for mental health training in programs at the covered entity and for defense by the covered entity in a legal proceeding brought by the individual, government investigations or lawful activities by a medical examiner. Patients are not entitled to access to psychotherapy notes and may be denied the opportunity for review of this decision. Notes not deemed to be psychotherapy notes include medical prescriptions and monitoring, session times, modalities and frequency of treatment, summaries of diagnosis, functional status, treatment plan, symptoms, prognosis and progress to date. However, if a physician merely writes a note in the office record about the patient’s history of mental illness, the use of psychotropic medications, or the addiction to or abuse of alcohol or illegal drugs, a special consent to release records is not required.

HIV Confidentiality

The "Good Samaritan" & "Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)" Laws

  • Does the Good Samaritan Law protect me from being sued?

    No, the Good Samaritan Law does not protect you from being sued if you are in your office or a hospital. It provides that any licensed physician who voluntarily, without expectations of receiving monetary compensation, renders first aid or emergency treatment at the scene of an accident or other emergency which occurs in a location other than the doctor’s office, a hospital, or other healthcare facility, to a person who is unconscious, ill, or injured shall not be liable for damages. This protection from liability, however, does not apply if the doctor is grossly negligent.

  • If a patient has a DNR order, must I write another order saying “Do not intubate?”

    A DNR order can specify what resuscitative efforts a patient wants. For example, the patient may desire CPR and certain medications but does not want to be intubated. It is very important to carefully discuss with the patient, family, surrogate, or proxy agent exactly what a DNR order means and what the patient wants. The competent patient and/or family should be advised that if a DNR order is issued, the following actions will not be taken if the patient suffers a cardiac or respiratory arrest. They include:

    • mouth-to-mouth resuscitation
    • external chest compression
    • electric shock
    • insertion of a tube to open the patient’s airway
    • injection of medication into the heart, or
    • open chest heart message.

The National Practitioner Data Bank

Diagnostic Test Follow-Up

The Healthcare Proxy Law

Handling Requests from Attorneys

  • If a patient signs an authorization solely for release of his/her records, am I at liberty to speak to his/her attorney or to the defense counsel?

    One area of concern for physicians and their attorneys involves requests from patients’ attorneys for records, especially when the reason for the request is not made clear. On occasion you may receive a call from an attorney requesting an appointment to discuss your care of a patient, or to have you interpret your notes in the patient’s medical record, which the attorney already has in his possession. Even if the attorney assures you that you will not be sued, or that your conversation is off the record, exercise caution and immediately contact your own attorney before agreeing to speak with him/her. Frequently these statements are simply not true. Further, it should be noted that an authorization to release records requires only that you release the patient’s records. It does not sanction discussion with any attorney. If an attorney wishes to question you about a patient’s care, the appropriate place to do so is at an Examination Before Trial (EBT) or deposition, where you may have counsel present for your protection. If you have been retained to be an expert witness for a plaintiff ’s attorney, you should request a specific and HIPAA compliant release from the patient, which will permit you to discuss all aspects of his/her care, treatment, diagnosis, and prognosis with that attorney.

  • If a patient’s attorney asks me to provide a narrative summary of my care or sends me written questions for my response, must I agree to do so?

    No. The best way to handle such a request is to obtain from the patient a properly signed and dated authorization allowing the attorney making the request to obtain access to the patient’s medical information. You should advise the attorney that your records speak for themselves. In addition, you are not obligated to be an expert witness for a patient you have not treated.

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