“Physician-Patient Relationship is Not Necessary to Sue Docs for Malpractice”

A recent ruling from the Minnesota Supreme Court:

Minnesota Medical Association: Physician-Patient Relationship is Not Necessary to Sue Docs for Malpractice

Thanks to Jeffrey Blumenthal for pointing out this reference. An excerpt:

The Minnesota Supreme Court issued a ruling on April 17 in the case of Warren v. Dinter holding that the existence of a physician-patient relationship is not a prerequisite for a medical malpractice action. Rather, a person may sue a physician for malpractice – even if that person was not a patient of the physician – if the harm suffered by the person was a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” of the physician’s actions….

The Warren v. Dinter case arises out of the care provided to a woman (Susan Warren), who complained of abdominal pain, fever, chills, and other symptoms to a nurse practitioner at Essentia Health Clinic in Hibbing. After testing showed that Warren had an elevated white blood cell count, the nurse practitioner suspected infection and sought hospitalization for her at Fairview Range Medical Center. The nurse practitioner’s call was randomly assigned to a hospitalist at Fairview to discuss admission. 

After a brief conversation, during which the physician was unable to view the patient’s medical record, …the physician did not recommend hospitalization during the conversation and the nurse practitioner did not seek hospitalization for the patient following the conversation. The patient subsequently died from sepsis caused by an untreated staph infection. Warren’s family sued both the nurse practitioner and the physician for medical malpractice…

Before its ruling April 17, Minnesota law has generally required the existence of a physician-patient relationship to sustain a malpractice action against a physician. The Court’s decision to rely on a broader legal theory of “foreseeability” represents a troubling change that puts Minnesota in the minority of states that do not require the existence of a physician-patient relationship for a malpractice action.

My take: While “foreseeability” was used as a determinant in this case, observers may foresee that the court’s ruling could erode informal advice (aka. curbside consults) that generally improves patient outcomes.  If physicians’ liability is significant, many may choose to not offer advice on patients that they have not fully evaluated.

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