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Terminating the Dentist-Patient Relationship and Avoiding Abandonment

February 22, 2023

Question: I have a patient who is very difficult to deal with. He is rude to my employees, does not always follow my treatment recommendations, complains about my fees, and is generally very unpleasant. I do not care to see him any longer. How do I end my relationship with him?

Answer: Once a dentist-patient relationship is established, a dentist is under both an ethical and legal obligation to provide services until the relationship is properly ended. The relationship may be ended by consent of the patient and dentist; revoked by the patient by changing or dismissing the dentist; ended in the event the dentist’s services are no longer needed; or the dentist unilaterally terminates the relationship.

Termination by the dentist is the scenario that may lead to the claim of “abandonment.” Although a dentist has a definite right to terminate the dentist-patient relationship, it must be done in such a manner that the patient is given reasonable notice to enable the patient to secure other dental treatment when needed. Abandonment is generally defined as the termination of the dentist-patient relationship at an unreasonable time and without giving the patient the chance to find another dentist. For abandonment to exist, the patient must show more than a simple termination of the relationship. The patient must prove that the dentist ended the relationship at a critical stage of the patient’s treatment without good reason or sufficient notice to allow the patient to find another dentist and, as a result, the patient was injured.

To be in a favorable position to defend a claim of abandonment, a dentist should finish any incomplete course of treatment and provide written notice to the patient, including:

  • A brief explanation for the termination of the relationship.
  • An offer to provide emergency services for a reasonable period, such as 30 days, to allow the patient to establish a relationship with another dentist.
  • Provide information regarding dentist referral services or other assistance to help the patient locate another dentist.
  • Provide information regarding the transfer of the patient’s records.

Read the complete Q&A in the Journal of the Michigan Dental Association on page 22.

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