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When a referral goes wrong: Who's responsible?

What is the liability of a family practice physician after referring a patient to a specialist? Does he or she continue to have any responsibility for the care or treatment that patient receives from that referral?

In the past, courts in another state have found that "under normal circumstances a referring physician's duty to a patient is extinguished once another physician exercises independent medical judgment as to the patient's medical care in performing a surgical procedure."

But generally speaking, in most states, a referral will not void due care that the primary care physician has in any ongoing relationship that may continue to exist with the patient. So while it would not be legally or ethically possible to hold a referring physician liable for surgical errors made by the specialist in the operating room, the general practitioner would still have to apply the same standards of care to the care of the patient as other physicians would in similar circumstances.

That doesn't mean that a general practitioner would be responsible for a specialist's misdiagnosis. Unless family practice physicians have reason to believe that a specialist is negligent, they would be acting in good faith when referring patients.

A medical malpractice case involving multiple physicians, medical facilities and health care providers is a complex matter. Highly technical expert testimony is usually necessary for plaintiffs to prevail if the case winds up in court. Even if it doesn't progress to that point, depositions of the medical professionals will need to be taken.

These type of cases typically are best handled by legal professionals well-versed in the intricacies of medical malpractice litigation.

Source: The Legal Intelligencer, "Can a Family Practice Physician Punt to a Specialist?," Cliff Rieders and Pamela Shipman, June 16, 2016

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