Medication Side Effects and the Doctor-Patient Relationship


The Doctor’s Responsibility in the Doctor-Patient Relationship

Did you know that healthcare laws require doctors to educate us on the medication they prescribe?  That is, a doctor must reasonably disclose the available choices and the risks involved with each treatment she prescribes.  The goal is to provide us with enough information so we can make an informed decision to either consent or deny treatment. A doctor breaches this duty if the doctor fails to disclose a risk of treatment that would prevent the reasonable patient from consenting to the same treatment. What this means is that doctors generally should tell you what serious side-effects your prescription could cause, and what alternative options you could take.

Yet, the truth is doctors don’t always do this.  Why?  Most likely, many doctors don’t believe it is reasonably necessary to tell you everything you want to know.  And, there is plenty of legal wiggle room found in the word “reasonable.”  While doctors are generally held to a national standard of care, a doctor’s lawyer could spend all day arguing over what a doctor should reasonably say under the circumstances. Sure enough, if a doctor fails to tell you that a medication has a risk of death or serious bodily injury, the doctor probably failed her legal duty, but, everything else is gray.

Building a Healthy Doctor-Patient Relationship: The Patient’s Responsibility

This is why it is so important to proactively communicate with your doctor.  Ask your doctor about the risks of your medication.  Ask her if there are any alternative treatments.  And, if she doesn’t tell you, perhaps it’s time you get a second opinion.  Most of all, explain to your doctor your personal priorities. You want the treatment that most reasonably suits your individual circumstances, rather than the treatment that reasonably suits the ordinary patient’s circumstances.  Remember, there is usually more than one reasonable treatment option available to you.

It is also important to understand the type of doctor you are dealing with when you discuss your treatment options.  Is this a doctor you are seeing for the first time?  Or, is this a doctor that you’ve seen for years?  While it is often said that doctors owe a fiduciary duty, this special obligation generally only attaches when a doctor-patient relationship forms.  A doctor-patient relationship does not form if your doctor neither offers nor intends to treat (or care) for you.  Rather, the relationship forms when your doctor acts for your benefit and you depend on your doctor’s good will. A doctor is not (usually) obligated to take you on as their patient.  So, a doctor you’re seeing for the first time may have less of a duty to you than the doctor you’ve seen for years.

Further, sometimes your doctor will owe you more of a contractual duty than a traditional fiduciary duty.  For example, plastic surgeons or orthodontist will often negotiate “rates” for medical treatment with you.  Obviously, physicians must earn an income too.  You should be aware of when your doctor’s personal financial interest could potentially conflict with your best interest.  So ask yourself what type of doctor are you working with?  It’s okay to shop around for the best and most affordable medical treatment. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor questions on the price of alternate treatments.


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