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The physician-patient relationship has been the focal point of several recent law
suits. At what point does a physician-patient relationship begin? Does a telephone call to schedule an  appointment with a healthcare provider constitute a physician-patient relationship?

In  a recent Michigan case, Weaver v. Univ. of Michigan Board of Regents, the
Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that a telephone call to schedule an appointment with a medical provider did not in itself establish a physician-patient relationship.

In  Weaver, the  patient, who was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, had a shunt
implanted by a pediatric neurosurgeon associated with the University of Michigan Medical Center.  Following the  surgery, the  patient's mother transferred  her care to  another neurosurgeon who was not affiliated with the medical center.

Several years later, the patient complained that she could not see.  The patient's
doctor concluded that the shunt had become disconnected but that the disconnection was not related to the  patient's loss  of vision.  The doctor stated that while no emergency existed, the patient should seek a second opinion.  The patient's father then called the medical center and spoke with a secretary to schedule an appointment for approximately two weeks later.  At the time of the appointment, the medical center's doctor diagnosed intracranial  pressure  and  recommended  emergency  surgery.  The  surgery  was
performed, but the patient suffered permanent and almost total loss of vision.

The patient then  sued her doctor and the medical center.  The patient alleged
negligence on the part of her own doctor and that the medical center had established a physician-patient relationship during the  course of their telephone  conversation.  The patient claimed that the medical center was negligent in waiting two weeks to schedule an appointment, contributing to the patient's loss of vision.  The patient's doctor settled, and the medical center was granted a motion for summary judgment on the basis that there was no physician-patient relationship.

In  Weaver,  the patient's father did not seek or expect medical advice over the
telephone, but meerely wanted to schedule an appointment for a second opinion in a non-emergency situation. The patient did not have an ongoing physician-patient relationship.

The court found that the physician-patient relationship had been terminated several years earlier when the patient's care was transferred  to  a physician outside of the medical center.

While in this case, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that a telephone call to schedule an appointment with a medical provider did not in  itself establish a physician patient relationship, healthcare providers should be aware that in  some cases telephone calls can be considered an extension of an existing physician-patient relationship. Healthcare providers can be held liable in cases where a patient seeks and receives medical advice over the telephone. This type of medical advice is regarded as a consultation between the patient and the healthcare professional.  Healthcare providers can also be held liable in  cases where a physician-patient relationship clearly exists.  In these  situations, the  telephone  call can be considered an extension  of the  ongoing physician-patient relationship.

Physician Patient Relationship

by Attorney Frank E. Reardon

May 1994

Healthcare Law, Litigation & Public Policy   Medical Licensure & Discipline ♦ Employment Board of Registration