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The failure to refer: Is it medical malpractice?

Most family doctors are of the “general practitioner” variety. They’re competent when handling a wide array of disorders and diseases, especially managing the sort of illnesses that many people develop through the ordinary process of aging.

But they aren’t specialists. Specialists have additional training in their fields and are generally better skilled at addressing the diseases under their purview. When a general practitioner is over his or her head with a specific patient — or a specific health complaint from a patient — he or she has an ethical and legal obligation to refer the patient to a specialist when one is available and it’s part of the customary practices of the physician’s peers to do so.

Yet, not every physician is keen on relinquishing control of a patient’s care to a specialist. Some don’t want to relinquish control to another doctor, and some just don’t want their work “questioned” by someone with more medical know-how. Whatever the reason a general practitioner fails to refer a patient to a specialist, the results can be disastrous:

Test results can be incorrectly interpreted

Medical testing is evolving at a rapid pace. Primary care physicians may have trouble keeping up with all of the developments in every field — but that doesn’t excuse them from having to be “experts” for any test that they order and review. Sending a patient to a specialist, however, reduces the chances that a test result will be incorrectly interpreted.

Subtle signs of a serious condition can be overlooked

A patient with chronic joint pain may be experiencing the normal pangs of osteoarthritis associated with age — or suffering from something that has the potential to cause internal organ damage and long-term disability, like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis or lupus. Primary care physicians are often unaware of the subtle clues that can lead to a definitive diagnosis.

Patients can be lulled into a false sense of security

When a primary care doctor dismisses their complaints as something minor, most patients will accept the answer and not push harder for a second opinion. That can cause a delayed diagnosis that could, ultimately, cost the patient’s life in the case of things like heart disease and cancer.

If a doctor’s failure to involve a specialist led to your injury or a loved one’s death, you may have legal options.


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