A general principle of medical bioethics is beneficence – a healthcare professional should be guided by providing benefit to the patient which also includes preventing and/or removing harm. As medicine has advanced, nonpatients such as family members and intimate partners sometimes become downstream or ancillary recipients of direct care to the primary patient. In what instance will a physician be liable to a nonpatient in regards to treatment of a patient?
A recent case Doe v. Cochran in Connecticut needed to answer this complex question. In Cochran, the male patient might have been told his test results for herpes was negative when it was positive. The male patient later infected his girlfriend with herpes. She sued the physician for professional negligence.
Several medical societies have requested from the Connecticut Supreme Court to uphold a trial court ruling that dismissed the case. The trial court ruled that the physician didn’t have a duty to the girlfriend because she was not his patient. Expansion of duty of care to nonpatients could potentially have a negative impact on patient confidentiality, patient care, and medical malpractice insurance rates.
Connecticut case law is strongly in favor of not expanding duty of care to nonpatients except under limited circumstances. Those circumstances include that the third-party is readily identifiable, there is an emergency risk of serious physical bodily harm or death, and a special relationship exists.
In other cases, physicians have been found to be responsible to nonpatients. For example, in Safer v. Pack 677 A.2d 1188, the court ruled held that a physician had a duty to warn those known to be at risk of avoidable harm from a genetically transmissible condition even if those individuals were not patients of the defendant physician. The physician had to take reasonable steps to assure that the information reaches those likely to be affected or is made available for their benefit.
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