Practice of Medicine

Article

Navigating Parental Disputes in the Practice Setting

By: Nick Forsyth

May 19, 2021

Practices that treat minor patients (such as pediatricians, family practitioners, and pediatric specialists) almost always need the consent of a parent or legal guardian to provide medical care to those patients. In most circumstances, this will rarely create a problem for the practice. However, when parents are divorced or in marital discord, a practice may find that obtaining consent can be challenging and confusing. Additionally, when parents disagree about the minor’s medical care, the subject of who has access to medical records and who may make decisions on behalf of the minor patient can become points of hostility.

Based on MagMutual’s experience handling these matters, we advise that practices take the following steps to ensure the practice minimizes risk with respect to obtaining appropriate consent before providing medical care.

Step 1: Determine the relationship between the parents of the minor patient.

When the practice begins providing medical care to a minor patient, the practice should determine the relationship between the parents. Absent a birth certificate, or other legal documentation to the contrary, the practice may assume the individuals listed on the practice’s intake form are the only relevant parties that may consent on behalf of the minor patient. The practice may assume that the individuals listed on the intake form are married, unless specifically stated otherwise. Unless legally divorced, separated parents are still considered married for purposes of determining authority to consent and right to access the patient’s medical records.

The practice may assume that with married parents, the parent present is acting in accordance with the wishes of the other parent. However, if divorced parents are in a dispute over the medical care to be provided to the minor patient or who may access the minor patient’s medical records, the practice should have both parties provide legal documentation—divorce agreement or custody arrangement—that details the parents’ current relationship and rights over medical decision-making of their minor child.

Step 2: Determine who has the authority to consent to the medical decisions on behalf of the minor patient.

 With married parents, the default is that both parents independently have the authority to consent to medical care on behalf of the minor patient. Therefore, a married parent may individually and independently consent to medical care for the minor patient. The consent of the other parent is not needed, even in major medical decisions. However, the practice should attempt to obtain the consent from both parents for logistical purposes in major medical decisions such as surgeries or behavioral health treatment.

With divorced individuals, the default is joint legal custody. In joint legal custody situations, both parents retain the authority to consent to medical decisions on behalf of the minor patients. However, unlike married parents, the consent of both parents will need to be obtained before a practice may proceed with a treatment plan for a minor patient. If the parental authority has been restricted or revoked by legal documents, such as a sole legal custody arrangement, the parents should provide the documentation to the practice. Arrangements, such as sole legal custody, require only the consent of the divorced parent with sole legal custody before a proposed treatment plan may be initiated.

Step 3: Determine who may have access to medical records and other administrative information of the minor patient.

Who may access the medical records of the minor patient, and other administrative information, will normally correlate to which parent, or parents, has the authority to consent to medical care on behalf of the minor patient. For example, in married couples, both parents may individually access the medical records of the minor patient, schedule appointments, and create an account in the practice’s patient portal interface. Similarly, in divorce situations where joint legal custody is the arrangement, both parents will normally retain the ability to access the minor patient’s medical records and other administrative information. However, in situations of divorce or other marital discord, a practice should be cognizant that legal documentation may have altered this parental right. A custody arrangement or divorce agreement may have left a parent with the ability to consent to medical treatments, but may have revoked the same parent’s right to access medical records and other information. As a best practice, a practice should always review any legal documentation provided by the parents before allowing access to a minor patient’s medical records or other administrative information. The practice should always request that the parents highlight the relevant sections of the legal documentation as the practice should not have to decipher and analyze these complex custody documents.

As a best course of action, practices should have a policy in place to handle situations of divorce and marital discord. The policy should address who the practice will consider to have the authority to make medical decisions on behalf of the minor patient. The policy should put forth the default assumptions the practice will make absent legal documentation showing otherwise. The policy should reinforce that the practice utilizes its discretion when classifying care as a major or minor medical decision. Additionally, the policy should state the practice will not become involved in marital disputes between the parties and if negotiating care with the parents becomes too burdensome, the practice has the option to discharging the patient from the practice with proper notice.

Based on MagMutual’s experience in these situations, we have developed these divorce and marital discord guidelines which a practice can utilize to reduce risk with disruptive parents. This draft guideline incorporates the most common risk management issues that MagMutual has encountered in this area. Depending on the frequency of issues, the practice can either hand out the guidelines to parents as appropriate and/or adjust the guidelines to become an agreement that is signed by the parents.

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Disclaimer

The information provided in this resource does not constitute legal, medical or any other professional advice, nor does it establish a standard of care. This resource has been created as an aid to you in your practice. The ultimate decision on how to use the information provided rests solely with you, the PolicyOwner.