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Refusing to Treat Patients

Physicians do not have unlimited discretion to refuse to accept a person as a new patient. Because much of medicine is involved with federal regulations, physicians cannot refuse to accept a person for ethnic, racial, or religious reasons. Nor can they discriminate based on the person's sex, unless the sex of the patient is relevant to the physician's specialty. Outside these protected areas, physicians have great latitude in refusing to accept persons as patients.

The most common reason for refusing to accept a patient is the patient's potential inability to pay for the necessary medical services. Patients should be given some indication of the financial requirements when they make an appointment for treatment to prevent them from delaying making other arrangements for care while waiting for an appointment at which they will receive no treatment. While it has not been clearly established that making an appointment creates a physician-patient relationship, it would be difficult to explain to a jury why someone in urgent need of care was turned away after having waited for an appointment. A defensible decision not to accept a patient for financial reasons can appear questionable in retrospect if the person was injured by the subsequent delay in receiving medical care.

Some physicians will not treat certain individuals or classes of patients. Perhaps the most common restriction is refusing to treat patients involved in accidents that will lead to litigation. Some physicians refuse to treat attorneys. Many obstetricians refuse to treat a pregnant woman who first seeks care after the sixth month of pregnancy. These decisions are shortsighted in a competitive market and ethically questionable in a market where they may make it difficult for the affected persons to obtain care; but they are not illegal.


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