Question of the Week

Last week we had a 35-week pregnant patient present to our emergency department in active labor.  Her obstetrician was not on our medical staff and the on-call obstetrician was contacted to come in.  In the course of the phone call between the ED physician and the on-call obstetrician, the obstetrician realized that she knew this patient, and she informed the ED physician that she had treated her in the past but had terminated that physician-patient relationship the previous year because the patient had been noncompliant in connection with her previous pregnancy and related complications.  The on-call physician didn’t want to come in to treat the patient because she had gone through a formal process of sending the patient a letter, with the required advance notice, and didn’t want to reestablish that relationship.  Does the on-call physician really have to see a patient in this situation? It seems unfair.

Unfortunately, yes.  While it’s not a popular answer and it does seem unfair from the perspective of the obstetrician at issue who likely did everything required of her to formally terminate that physician-patient relationship – a process that usually requires written notification with at least 30 days’ advance notice (and sometimes longer in the case of a pregnant patient) – the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (“EMTALA”) requirements trump the fact that the obstetrician terminated the physician-patient relationship.  In this case, the obstetrician is responding to the ED as the on-call physician, and she has to respond.

In the absence of a statute like that in effect in Virginia, which specifically provides that a physician-patient relationship created by a response to the ED by an on-call physician is “deemed terminated” upon the discharge of the patient from the ED or, if the patient is admitted, upon the patient’s discharge from the hospital and the completion of any follow-up care prescribed by the on-call physician, the obstetrician will likely have to go through the advance notice and termination process again.

The situation would be different if this patient presented to the ED and told the ED that the obstetrician was her treating physician.  In that case, when the ED contacted the obstetrician to inform her that one of her patients was in the ED, the obstetrician would have been able to inform the ED that she had terminated the physician-patient relationship, and the ED would then have resorted to contacting the on-call obstetrician.