Is a Doctor-Patient Relationship a Necessary Element for a Claim of Medical Malpractice?

Both clinicians however agreed that Dr D told Ms S that the cause of the patient’s abnormal test results was likely diabetes, and that Ms S should get that issue under control and see the patient the following Monday. Ms S asked the hospitalist whether the patient should be admitted to the hospital and he said, “to what end?”  Ms S asked the physician whether diabetes could actually be the source of the elevated white blood cell count, and he responded that it could. 

After her conversation with Dr D, Ms S sought out Dr B, her collaborating physician at the clinic, because she still felt the patient should be hospitalized and she wondered whether Dr B might be able to help make that happen. Dr B concurred with the hospitalist that diabetes could be responsible for the patient’s elevated white blood cell count. 

After this, Ms S returned to the patient and told her that she had spoken to the hospitalist who felt that a hospital admission was not needed. Ms S then discussed the diabetes diagnosis with Mrs W, prescribed diabetes and pain medication, scheduled a follow-up appointment for Monday, and sent the patient home. 

On Monday, when Mrs W’s son arrived at her home to take her to her appointment, he found her dead. An autopsy concluded that the cause of death was sepsis caused by an untreated staph infection. 

Mrs W’s son hired a plaintiff’s attorney, and sued the clinic, Ms S, her supervisor Dr B, and the hospitalist at the other health system, Dr D. The clinic, Ms S and Dr B settled out of court, leaving the only case remaining against Dr D, the hospitalist who had not actually seen the patient. The physician’s defense attorney moved to have the case dismissed, arguing that Dr D owed no duty of care to Mrs W because she was not his patient, and he had provided information only as a professional courtesy to the nurse practitioner.      

The district court agreed with the defense and dismissed the case, holding that the relationship between Ms S and Dr D was “in the nature of an informal conversation between medical colleagues and did not create a doctor patient relationship,” between Dr D and Mrs W. 

Mrs W’s son appealed, arguing that as a matter of law, a physician-patient relationship was not necessary for Dr D to have a duty to Mrs W. The court of appeals disagreed with the plaintiff, and affirmed the lower court decision, holding that there was no duty because there was no physician-patient relationship. The son appealed again to the supreme court of the state.