When a physician leaves a practice to either start or join a new practice, there is often a dispute between the departing doctor and the practice about the information to be provided to the physician’s patients. While Colorado Medical Board Policy 40-08 addresses this question in some respects, it is silent on another: Do patients have the right to know where there physician is going?
Most employment contracts contain a provision indicating that the patients are “patients of the practice” and not of the doctor. This position, however, ignores Colorado’s Corporate Practice of Medicine doctrine, C.R.S. § 12-36-134 (7), which provides that corporations do not practice medicine, and individual providers remain responsible for the treatment of patients. The physician-patient relationship exists between the treating physicians and the patient. No “practice-patient” relationship exists under Colorado law. Thus, the enforceability of provisions in employment or other agreements between physicians which suggest an “ownership” interest in patients is dubious.
Colorado Medical Board Policy 40-08 makes clear that it is the patient’s decision from whom to receive care. The policy further provides that “Practitioners continue to have obligations toward patients during and after departure from a medical practice. Practitioners may not abandon a patient or abruptly withdraw from the care of a patient.” Further, the policy provides that “No practitioner, group of practitioners, or other parties that may be involved should interfere with the fulfilment of these obligations, nor should practitioners put themselves in a position where they cannot be assured these obligations will be met.” This position is echoed by CMS and AMA policies as well.
For example, American Medical Association Ethics Opinion 7.03 provides, in part:
The patients of a physician who leaves a group practice should be notified that the physician is leaving the group. Patients of the physician should also be informed of the physician’s new address and offered the opportunity to have their medical records forwarded to the departing physician at his or her new practice location.
Similarly, the Colorado Medical Society’s policy 180.995 on Termination of Physician/Patient Relationship Notification addresses the issue of patient notification upon a physician’s departure from a practice and recommends that patients be provided contact information for the departing physician.
Ultimately, patients are entitled to full and complete information to allow them to make informed decisions about their health care, including information allowing them to contact physicians who are leaving a practice – even where the departing doctor is going to a competing practice.