Establishing the Relationship
Historically, the primary legal characteristic of the physician–patient relationship was that it was voluntary. The physician was free to choose which patients to treat. The patient, in theory, was free to choose a physician. Unfortunately, this voluntariness permitted racial, religious, and economic discrimination against patients. Federal and state civil rights laws and health care regulations such as the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act prohibit discriminatory treatment and in that sense limit the ability of health care practitioners to refuse to treat patients. There are other exceptions involving physicians who have contractually agreed to treat certain classes of patients, such as those in managed care organizations (MCOs) or emergency room staffing groups. These exceptions have greatly reduced the latitude of most physicians to refuse to treat a given patient. Within these constraints, the law still assumes that a physician must accept a patient voluntarily before the physician–patient relationship is legally binding. [ Reynolds v. Decatur Mem’l Hosp., 660 N.E.2d 235 (Ill. App. 4 Dist. 1996).]