Can Doctors Really Refuse To Treat Patients For Discriminatory Reasons?

10 March 2015
 Categories: Law, Articles


While bans on gay marriage are steadily being struck down in states all across the country, people in the LGBT community still face discrimination in their daily lives. Case in point, a medical doctor recently refused to treat a lesbian couple's infant because she felt having the parents as clients conflicted with her religious beliefs. Medical doctors serve the public—and thus must adhere to state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination—so many people felt the doctor's actions were illegal. Unfortunately for the couple, the doctor was within her rights to decline to serve them.

The LGBT Community vs. Anti-Discrimination Laws

Acceptance of LBGT individuals has increased significantly in the last few decades. However, the laws in the country have been slow to change to address their legal needs. While the Civil Rights Act prohibits doctors working in private and public facilities from refusing to serve patients based on their race, color, sex, pregnancy and childbirth status, religion, and national origin, that protection does not extend to people's sexual orientation or gender identity.

Additionally, Michigan has only adopted laws that protect LGBT government employees from job discrimination. There are currently no state laws prohibiting discrimination against this community in other areas of life including medicine. In fact, the state senate is sitting on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would allow people to actively refuse to serve others if doing so conflicts with their moral or religious beliefs.

While the American Medical Association (AMA) prohibits members from refusing to treat patients because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, doctors can decline to perform specific treatments that conflict with their religious beliefs (e.g. refuse to do an abortion). Whether or not the doctor will face any disciplinary action from the AMA for discriminating against the lesbian couple remains to be seen.

Patient Abandonment

Although the doctor was within her legal rights to refuse to continue serving the couple, the way she handled the situation could have opened her up to a personal injury lawsuit. Specifically, when a doctor suddenly stops treating a patient without a reasonable excuse or giving the patient adequate notice to find an alternative provider, it's called patient abandonment and it's a form of medical malpractice.

This legal theory helps patients who are harmed by their doctors' unwillingness to continue serving them collect damages for any resultant injuries. To prevail in court, four factors must be true:

  • There was an established relationship between the doctor and patient, meaning the doctor agreed to treat the patient and the treatment had commenced.
  • The doctor abandoned the patient during the critical stage of the treatment (i.e. while the person still needed medical attention).
  • The patient was not given enough time or resources to find a replacement healthcare provider who could continue the treatment.
  • The patient suffered harm as a result of the doctor's actions.

An example of patient abandonment would be a doctor who unexpectedly tells a cancer patient in the middle of chemotherapy that he won't be treating the individual any longer because the patient has not paid a previous bill. Non-payment of medical services is considered an unjustified reason for abandonment. The patient could sue the doctor for damages if the individual's condition worsened because the person didn't have enough time to find another doctor who could continue the treatment.

Even a doctor who wants to stop treating a patient because of religious reasons would still need to do so in an appropriate manner if he or she wants to avoid liability.

Everyone deserves to be treated fairly, especially when it comes to receiving adequate and appropriate medical care. If you feel your doctor has abandoned without cause you during a critical phase of your treatment, you should contact a personal injury attorney for assistance with obtaining compensation for your losses.