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Patient abandonment, not to be confused with medical negligence, occurs when a physician or other medical professional withdraws treatment from a patient without providing a reasonable notice or a competent replacement. During patient abandonment, a patient is essentially denied necessary medical treatment. Patient abandonment is a form of negligence that can be inadvertent or intentional. Direct harm caused to the patient as a result of patient abandonment can be grounds for a medical malpractice claim.

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Medical Treatment as a Legal Agreement

Although there is typically no contract involved, an agreement between a medical professional and patient is considered a binding ethical and legal agreement. This agreement takes place once a medical professional agrees to accept and treat a patient for any conditions that are discussed. However, it is a medical professional’s right to terminate a relationship. If a medical professional chooses to terminate the relationship, it is his or her duty to ensure that patient abandonment does not take place. It is also his or her duty to ensure that the patient is not endangered as a direct result of the termination.

Reasons for Patient Abandonment

While a medical professional has the right to choose patients in accordance with ability, there are certain legal and medical standards to be upheld. It is unethical for a medical professional to terminate a relationship unilaterally for invalid reasons. For example, it is inappropriate to terminate a relationship based on personal preferences or discrimination such as disability, race, gender, or age.

Valid reasons for treatment termination may include:

  • Insufficient skills to provide adequate treatment to the patient
  • Insufficient supplies or resources to provide adequate treatment
  • Ethical or legal conflicts resulting from the treatment process
  • Patient violations of the physician’s policies
  • Numerous cancelled or missed appointments
  • Refusal of the patient to comply with the physician’s recommendations
  • Inappropriate behavior of the patient, such as sexual advances or verbal abuse

Appropriate Treatment Termination Protocol

In order to professionally and ethically terminate a treatment agreement, it is recommended that a physician takes the following five steps to avoid patient abandonment:

  • Providing the patient with a written notice which is preferably delivered by certified mail, return receipt requested
  • Briefly explaining why the treatment relationship is being terminated, such as failure to keep appointments, non-compliance, or other valid reason(s)
  • Offering continued treatment for a reasonable period of time to allow the patient to arrange for alternative care from an equally qualified physician
  • Providing recommendations or resources to help the patient secure an equally qualified physician
  • Agreeing to transfer records to the patient’s new physician if the patient provides signed authorization to do so

Malpractice due to Patient Abandonment

In order for patient abandonment to qualify as malpractice, there are three main criteria that must be proven on behalf of the patient:

  • The patient abandonment took place at a critical stage of the treatment process when the patient was still in need of medical attention
  • The patient abandonment took place so abruptly that the patient did not have sufficient time or resources to find a suitable and competent replacement physician
  • The patient suffered injury as a direct result of the patient abandonment


Blyth, DA. “Do You Know What Constitutes Patient Abandonment?.” Nursing Management. 38.8 (2007): 8. CINAHL Plus with Full Text.Web. 13 Dec. 2012.
“Court Case. Patient Abandonment.”Nursing. 27.4 (1997): 69. CINAHL Plus with Full Text.Web. 13 Dec. 2012.
Tammelleo, A. David. “Was this ‘patient abandonment’ during labor?” Medical Law’s Regan Report. Feb. 2008: 1+. Academic OneFile.Web. 13 Dec. 2012.