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Duty to Attend - Can A Veterinarian Withdraw From A Case?
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Yes, a veterinarian can withdraw from a case. A person who engages a veterinarian to treat an animal’s illness or injury impliedly engages him or her to attend to the animal until the animal’s condition no longer requires treatment, until the veterinarian’s services are discontinued by the client, or until the veterinarian withdraws from the case.

A veterinarian/client/patient relationship (VCPR) is established when the veterinarian is engaged to treat the animal and actually commences that treatment. While the VCPR is a contractual relationship which can be terminated by either the client or the veterinarian, it is the basis of all veterinary care and imposes certain legal and ethical obligations on the licensed veterinarian.

The VCPR will be considered naturally terminated upon the completion of the services requested by the client, or the cure of the injury or illness for which veterinary services were sought by the client. The VCPR will be deemed to be terminated if the veterinarian is not able to continue rendering services because the animal has been removed from his or her hospital, or the animal owner fails to bring the animal back to the veterinarian for continued treatment.

The veterinarian may wish to terminate the relationship with the client/patient if the client makes it impossible for the veterinarian to provide treatment; for example, by failing to follow instructions, failing to provide the animal with necessary medication, or taking other actions that are directly contrary to the medical treatment prescribed by the veterinarian. While a client may dismiss a veterinarian at any time, termination of the VCPR by the veterinarian must always be accompanied by timely notice to the client.

Once a veterinarian has started to treat an animal, her/she should not abandon medically necessary treatment abruptly or prematurely. A veterinarian who wishes to withdraw should provide the client with enough notice to give the client sufficient time to find another veterinarian to provide the animal with any medically necessary treatment required by the animal.

The NYS Education Law specifically states that a licensed professional who abandons or neglects a patient under and in need of immediate professional care without making reasonable arrangements for the continuation of such care may have committed an act of professional misconduct. A veterinarian who wishes to withdraw should have a legitimate reason for doing so. Be aware that NYS law specifically prohibits any licensed professional from refusing to provide services to a person because of a person’s race, creed, color, or national origin.

A veterinarian can always withdraw from a case if the withdrawal has been discussed with the client, and the client agrees to it. The veterinarian should have the client sign a written statement that acknowledges that withdrawal has been discussed with the veterinarian and the client agrees to it, and (if applicable) that the client has been advised of the necessity of continuing medical care for the animal patient and the advisability of obtaining care from another veterinarian.

Any termination of veterinary services not done with the assent of the client should be done by written notification to the client or by extensive discussion with the client noted in the patient record. The veterinarian may wish to have a member of the staff present during that discussion, and have him/her attest to the discussion in the patient record. Any such written notification or oral discussion should be very explicit about any negative consequences that may result from failure to obtain continuing medical care if the animal has an ongoing medical condition that requires such care. If the animal is in the custody of the veterinarian when the veterinarian decides to withdraw from the case, the veterinarian can demand that the animal be removed from his/her premises within a reasonable period of time.

Failure of the withdrawing veterinarian to provide the client with sufficient time to arrange for continuing veterinary care, or to ensure that the client understands the necessity of providing continuing care for a sick or injured animal could subject the veterinarian to a charge of unprofessional conduct upon any complain to the State Education Department. In addition, the veterinarian could be held liable in a separate civil suit for injuries sustained or worsened by an abrupt cessation of veterinary services without proper advice to the client about the current medical needs of the animal.

A veterinarian is always entitled to full compensation for all services rendered and expenses incurred up to the time the VCPR is terminated. To avoid collection problems, the financial obligation should be made clear to the client during any discussion or notice concerning the veterinarian’s withdrawal from the case.

Remember that the client is entitled to a complete copy of the patient record; the veterinarian is entitled to charge his/her reasonable expenses for copying those records.

Editor’s note: This response was originally written by Kenneth W. Greenawalt, Esq. and has been revised and updated by NYSVMS executive board counsel Barbara J. Ahern, Esq.

Veterinary Practice Management

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