February 22, 2023

Terminating the Dentist-Patient Relationship and Avoiding Abandonment

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.

About the author:

Daniel J. Schulte answer questions about health care lawDaniel J. Schulte has more than 25 years of experience helping clients solve tough problems and capitalize on opportunities that require a blend of business and legal expertise. His practice focuses on addressing the legal, business, licensing, and regulatory challenges of health care professionals, organizations, and facilities. Dan understands how legal issues impact business objectives and, as a result, offers his clients practical, results-oriented advice. He is a Certified Public Accountant, former managing partner and current executive committee member of the firm. Dan also serves as co-chair of the firm’s Health Care Practice Group.

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Health Care Law