Doctors study for many years to become knowledgeable about one specific area of medicine. Often doctors consult with patients with conditions that the doctor is not familiar with. Doctors have a duty to refer patients to another doctor when a different doctor could provide better treatment for the patient.
For example,if a general practitioner notices skin discoloration or unusual moles on a patient's face, the doctor should refer the patient to a dermatologist or another specialty doctor that has an advanced knowledge of skin cancer.
The duty to refer to a specialist protects patients from insufficient treatment and protects doctors from being held liable for providing care that they are not qualified to provide.
When Are Referrals Necessary?
Once doctors enter into a doctor-patient relationship with a patient, they have a duty to continue treatment until it is no longer needed or until the patient decides to end the relationship. If a doctor discovers that she does not possess the knowledge or qualifications needed to treat the patient, the doctor cannot turn the patient away; the doctor is legally required to refer the patient to another doctor. The standard of care for referring patients means that if any other reasonable doctor with similar qualifications would have referred a patient to another doctor, then that patient's doctor has a duty to refer.
Though statutes differ across the country, generally a doctor who does not refer the patient to a specialist will be held to the same standards as a specialist doctor would have been held. If for example, a general practitioner fails to refer the patient with possible skin cancer to a specialty doctor, that general practitioner will be held to the same standards of care as a dermatologist or other specialty cancer doctor would be held, even though the general practitioner does not possess the same knowledge.
Doctors have a duty to refer patients to other doctors when the patient's condition is beyond their knowledge or requires other specialized care, or when the doctor does not have the time or resources to properly treat the patient. Doctors should know their limitations and should understand what kinds of conditions they are able to treat and what conditions would be better cared for by other doctors.
A doctor's duty does not end with a referral to another patient; it is still the responsibility of the referring doctor to make certain that the patient is being cared for. If a doctor refers a patient to another doctor and fails to follow-up with that patient, the first doctor may still be held liable for injuries to the patient.
Failure to Refer Harms Patients
Doctors earn their money by treating patients. Unfortunately, some doctors may not want to send their patient to a different doctor and lose money, even if a different doctor has the knowledge and tools the patient needs.
Patients who face a delayed or failed referral can suffer serious harm as a result. Results can include:
- Worsening medical condition and possible irreversible injuries
- Misdiagnosis due to a doctor's lack of specialized knowledge
- Failed or misdiagnosis from a failure to refer the patient for more detailed or conclusive diagnostic tests
Patients who suffered serious injuries as a result of a doctor's failure to refer to a specialist can recover damages for extra medical costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering.