Legal News
Treatment Termination Does Not Close Door on Lawsuits
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 11 page 26-26

Problems arising from beginning and ending treatment with some patients can place psychiatrists at risk of being named defendants in malpractice suits, according to David Cash, J.D., an attorney and senior risk manager with Professional Risk Management Services Inc. (PRMS), the company that manages the APA-endorsed Psychiatrists' Professional Liability Insurance Program.

Cash spoke at a daylong seminar sponsored by PRMS in New York City in March (see article at left).

"The existence of a psychiatrist-patient relationship gives rise to the obligation on the psychiatrist's part to remain available to the patient and provide care and treatment that meets the standard of care," Cash said.

The standard of care is a legal concept— not a clinical one—established by expert witnesses and usually encompassing a range of treatment options.

But psychiatrists may enter into a psychiatrist-patient relationship without meaning to, he noted.

In some rare cases, circumstances that may trigger a psychiatrist-patient relationship include informal advice provided to someone during a casual conversation or via e-mail, and even an informal lecture or educational activity, according to Cash.

"It's fairly easy to allege the existence of such a relationship," he said. Courts tend to adopt the viewpoint of the patient in deciding whether a psychiatrist-patient treatment relationship exists, he pointed out.

During an initial visit, forensic evaluation, or consultation, psychiatrists should explain their role to the patient and document that explanation. "Clarifying your relationship to the patient at these times can go a long way in reducing liability risk," Cash noted." Likewise, the psychiatrist should disclaim the psychiatrist-patient treatment relationship when lecturing."

Cash also emphasized that improperly or abruptly terminating treatment with patients can leave them vulnerable to allegations of abandonment.

A psychiatrist may stop treating a patient for any number of reasons—perhaps the patient is noncompliant, for example, or the psychiatrist is closing or relocating his or her practice. Perhaps the most common reason for terminating treatment is that the patient has recovered and no longer needs treatment.

In cases in which the psychiatrist wishes to terminate the treatment relationship for reasons other than that the patient has recovered, Cash said, proper termination procedure involves giving the patient adequate notice that treatment will be ending (at least 30 days is advised), sending a follow-up termination letter via regular and certified mail, assisting the patient with finding alternative treatment when necessary, and educating the patient and his or her family members about treatment recommendations.

Psychiatrists should also avoid prescribing large quantities of medication to the patient before terminating treatment, Cash said, and should never terminate treatment with a patient who has become a danger to himself or herself or others; however, he added, "if the patient agrees to be hospitalized, you can safely terminate treatment during hospitalization" because the patient will be under the care of a psychiatrist who is responsible for his or her treatment and aftercare plan.

More information and risk management advice are posted online at<www.psychprogram.com/home.htm>.

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