What Do You Owe Patients When You Move On?

Gregory A. Hood, MD

Disclosures

September 04, 2018

In This Article

Severing the Relationship the Right Way

If you're planning to close your practice in the near future—to relocate, retire, or even for health reasons—you'll have to consider the best way to let your patients know of your plans.

How should you take on this task? This question, at its heart, is both simple and complex. It's simple because there are established rules and protocols that cover the medicolegal aspects of closing a practice, including how medical records should be handled. Doctors who fail to follow the appropriate guidelines do so at their peril.

However, the practice of medicine and physician-patient relationships are fundamentally human endeavors. Bringing a typically long-standing relationship to a close isn't black and white. Rather, the unique and imperfect natures of human communication, human emotion, and platonic desires can cloud the process, or at least its perception.

So if you're getting ready to close your practice (or move on to another one), the letter of the law is clear. To end the physician-patient relationship, whether it be with an individual patient or with an entire practice, you'll need to follow a number of steps within specific time frames; failure to do so may constitute "abandonment." We've all heard of examples in which a patient showed up at their doctor's office only to find that it has been shut down. Scenes like this constitute a grave abrogation of a physician's professional responsibilities.

Never 'Abandon' a Former Patient

To be fair, it's not always the physician's fault. Having closed or left three practices in my career, and observing many partners come and go, I can say that sometimes the patient's surprise is more a factor of today's short attention spans than abandonment by the physician. It's hard to blame the doctor after a patient has received a series of letters and phone calls but still shows up at the office months later, "unaware" that the physician has long since left.

In fact, I know of one doctor who made a total of seven contacts—three letters and four phone calls—to each patient before relocating her practice out of state, yet someone still came to the old office 2 months after the transition was complete, expecting to be seen.

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