Why doctors don’t have to see a patient

People sometimes contact the Health Care Complaints Commission complaining that they did not get an appointment with a doctor. Often they think that they have the right to be seen by the doctor. However, doctors in private practice are free to choose how to run their business. This means they can choose who they see as patients, the operating hours of the practice and how much they will charge.

The only time a doctor is required to see a patient is when a person’s life is in danger and requires urgent emergency treatment. If you have an emergency, let the doctor or the receptionist immediately know that this is an emergency and that you need urgent help.

In non-emergency situations, a doctor may decline to see a patient. This might be because the doctor does not have any free appointments available and taking on a new patient would compromise the care they can provide to their existing patients.  Sometimes, a doctor may decide to not see a patient anymore. Reasons for that include that the doctor: 

  • is not able to help that patient with their problems
  • feels there is a breakdown in the relationship with a patient
  • would breach professional boundaries, if they continued to see a patient.

Professional expertise

If the doctor believes that they do not have the right expertise to help a patient with their presenting problem, they can decline to see the patient. In most cases, the doctor will offer to refer the patient to another more suitable health provider.

Breakdown of relationship between doctor and patient

A doctor can refuse to see a patient where the relationship with the patient has broken down. This includes situations where there is a serious disagreement about the treatment or about financial matters.  It also includes situations where a patient has been abusive or threatening to the doctor or staff members. Where there are serious concerns about safety, the doctor or staff can call the police or security to escort a patient out of the practice or hospital.

Professional boundaries

A doctor has the obligation to stop treating a patient when there is the risk that they cross professional boundaries. This includes where the patient has become a close friend or is a family member. Doctors are also prohibited from entering into a sexual relationship with their patients.

Professional boundaries also apply to financial dealings with patients. A doctor should stop seeing a patient where they have a financial relationship. Professional boundaries are important to protect both a patient and the doctor and to allow a doctor to provide treatment that is objective and in a patient’s best interest.

Discrimination

A doctor cannot refuse to see a patient on the basis of race, religion, gender etc. If you believe a doctor has refused to see you on such a basis you can lodge a complaint with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board. The Board can be contacted on (02) 9268 5555.

More information

If you need more information, you can call the Commission’s Inquiry Service.