Managing Your Practice

COVID-19: Can doctors refuse to see unvaccinated patients?


 

In June, Gerald Bock, MD, a dermatologist in central California, instituted a new office policy: He would not be seeing any more patients who remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 in his practice.

Close-up of bottles of COVID-19 vaccine peterschreiber_media/iStock/Getty Images

“[It is] the height of self-centered and irresponsible behavior,” he told me. “People who come in unvaccinated, when vaccination is widely available, are stating that their personal preferences are more important than their health, and are more important than any risk that they may expose their friends and family to, and also to any risk they might present to my staff and me. We have gone to considerable effort and expense to diminish any risk that visiting our office might entail. I see no reason why we should tolerate this.”

Other doctors appear to be following in his footsteps. There is no question that physicians have the right to choose their patients, just as patients are free to choose their doctors, but is it ethical to treat unvaccinated patients differently than their vaccinated counterparts? That is a complicated question without a clear answer. In a statement on whether physicians can decline unvaccinated patients, the American Medical Association continues to maintain that “in general” a physician may not “ethically turn a patient away based solely on the individual’s infectious disease status,” but does concede that “the decision to accept or decline a patient must balance the urgency of the individual patient’s need; the risk the patient may pose to other patients in the physician’s practice; and the need for the physician and staff, to be available to provide care in the future.”

Medical ethics experts have offered varying opinions. Daniel Wikler, PhD, professor of ethics and population health at the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post that “ignorance or other personal failing” should not be factors in the evaluation of patients for health care. He argues that “doctors and hospitals are not in the blame and punishment business. Nor should they be. That doctors treat sinners and responsible citizens alike is a noble tradition.”

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

Timothy Hoff, professor of management, healthcare systems, and health policy at Northeastern University, Boston, maintains that, in nonemergency situations, physicians are legally able to refuse patients for a variety of reasons, provided they are not doing so because of some aspect of the patient’s race, gender, sexuality, or religion. However, in the same Northeastern University news release,Robert Baginski, MD, the director of interdisciplinary affairs for the department of medical sciences at Northeastern, cautions that it is vital for health authorities to continue urging the public to get vaccinated, but not at the expense of care.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, the head of the division of medical ethics at New York University, said in a Medscape commentary, that the decision to refuse to see patients who can vaccinate, but choose not to, is justifiable. “If you’re trying to protect yourself, your staff, or other patients, I think you do have the right to not take on somebody who won’t vaccinate,” he writes. “This is somewhat similar to when pediatricians do not accept a family if they won’t give their kids the state-required shots to go to school. That’s been happening for many years now.

“I also think it is morally justified if they won’t take your advice,” he continues. “If they won’t follow what you think is the best healthcare for them [such as getting vaccinated], there’s not much point in building that relationship.”

The situation is different in ED and hospital settings, however. “It’s a little harder to use unvaccinated status when someone really is at death’s door,” Dr. Caplan pointed out. “When someone comes in very sick, or whatever the reason, I think we have to take care of them ethically, and legally we’re bound to get them stable in the emergency room. I do think different rules apply there.”

In the end, every private practitioner will have to make his or her own decision on this question. Dr. Bock feels he made the right one. “Since instituting the policy, we have written 55 refund checks for people who had paid for a series of cosmetic procedures. We have no idea how many people were deterred from making appointments. We’ve had several negative online reviews and one woman who wrote a letter to the Medical Board of California complaining that we were discriminating against her,” he said. He added, however, that “we’ve also had several patients who commented favorably about the policy. I have no regrets about instituting the policy, and would do it again.”

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected]

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