When Is A Physician-Patient Relationship Legally Formed?

When Is A Physician-Patient Relationship Legally Formed?

Is a physician-patient relationship legally formed when someone calls your office to make an appointment? Below is a hypothetical situation.

Dr. Sebastian is a family practice physician. Emma Rock, a prospective patient of Dr. Sebastian, sent a written complaint to Dr. Sebastian regarding a voicemail message that she left during business hours at his office to make an appointment. Dr. Sebastian’s office staff received the voicemail, but never returned the call. It just “fell through the cracks.” Ms. Rock had no prior relationship with Dr. Sebastian. After Ms. Rock left the message, her condition worsened, leading her to seek treatment at an urgent care center. Ms. Rock posted on social media online about Dr. Sebastian not returning phone calls, and threatened in her letter to file suit claiming that her illness worsened because her phone call was not answered. Would Ms. Rock prevail in a claim against Dr. Sebastian?


Ms. Rock would not prevail in her claim for medical malpractice against Dr. Sebastian for not returning her phone call. Central to this inquiry is whether Dr. Sebastian owed Ms. Rock a duty to treat her. For Dr. Sebastian to owe Ms. Rock this duty, a physician-patient relationship must have been clearly established.* A “relationship of physician and patient is a consensual relationship in which the patient knowingly seeks the physician’s assistance and the physician knowingly accepts the person as a patient.” ** Physicians are not under any obligation to treat a patient unless they choose to (exceptions are made when emergency care is needed). In general, once a physician affirmatively acts by examining, diagnosing, treating or agreeing to treat, a physician-patient relationship is formed, and a duty is owed. 
Ms. Rock’s phone call and message to Dr. Sebastian show she knowingly sought Dr. Sebastian’s assistance about her medical condition, however, her actions did not meet the requirement. Dr. Sebastian had no previous contact with Ms. Rock, but did not accept her as a patient and provided no advice. Therefore Dr. Sebastian did not affirmatively enter into a doctor-patient relationship with Ms. Rock.

For further information about physician patient relationships, contact Melinda Malecki at mmalecki@mbhealthlaw.com.

* Siwa v. Koch, 388 Ill. App. 3d 444 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. Feb. 10, 2009), citing Reynolds v. Decatur Memorial Hospital, 277 Ill. App. 3d 80 (1996).

** Gillespie, 387 Ill. App. 3d at 544 (citing Reynolds, 277 Ill. App. 3d at 85).

Articles distributed by Malecki & Brooks Law Group, LLC are advertisements and summaries for general information and discussion purposes only.  They are not full analyses of the matters presented, legal, or otherwise, and may not be relied upon as legal advice. 

About Author

Melinda Malecki, JD, MS, CPHRM

Melinda Malecki is a Health Law attorney with 25 years of corporate, regulatory, and risk management experience. As a Certified Professional in Healthcare Risk Management (CPHRM), she provides legal counsel, corporate compliance, and risk management services to physicians, safety net hospitals and healthcare organizations, including federally qualified health centers. Ms. Malecki began her career as a risk manager at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago. She became the Director of Risk Management and Legal Services at West Suburban Medical Center, Oak Park, and later became the Medical Center’s General Counsel. While working for West Suburban, Ms. Malecki managed all legal services for the Medical Center’s administration and staff. She directed all insurance purchasing and significantly reduced the Medical Center’s financial exposure due to insurance expenses. She began the private practice of law in 2000 and continues to consult in all of the foregoing areas. Ms. Malecki has extensive experience in the area of physician representation, including sales and purchases of practices, contract negotiations and corporate disputes. Her work as a hospital attorney benefits her physician clients in dealing with such matters as medical staff issues and contractual negotiations. One of Ms. Malecki’s greatest skills is handling risk management issues for healthcare organizations. She is frequently retained to create or redesign a risk management function / program for facilities that need to pass an accreditation or are at risk of losing insurance coverage. Ms. Malecki serves on the board of PCC Community Wellness Center, a federally qualified healthcare center based in Oak Park, Illinois and on the board of Anderson Animal Shelter in Elgin, Illinois. Ms. Malecki is the Principal at Malecki Brooks Law Group, LLC. If you would like more information about Ms. Malecki or her law firm visit www.mbhealthlaw.com/

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