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When can a doctor be held liable for a negligent referral?

In your grandparents’ or maybe even in your parents’ day, people often saw one doctor (often known as their family physician) throughout their entire lives. If they developed a particularly serious condition like cancer or a neurological disorder, they may be referred to a doctor who specialized in that field, but it wasn’t the norm to be referred to a specialist as often as patients are today.

One advantage of large medical systems is that they have primary care physicians as well as specialists in a wide variety of fields so that patients can move to specialized care without switching to another health care provider. Generally, primary care physicians refer a patient to someone within their system. Other primary care physicians may refer patients to specialists they know by reputation, personally or through a shared medical school alma mater.

But what if a doctor refers a patient to a specialist who misdiagnoses them, fails to diagnose them or makes a serious error that rises to the level of medical malpractice? Can that referring doctor be held liable along with the specialist?

What needs to be proven?

There is such a thing as “negligent referral” under the law. However, to prove that, a patient needs to show that the referring doctor knew or should have known that the other doctor may not be competent to treat them.

For example, did the referring doctor know the specialist was facing multiple complaints or lawsuits? Did they know they had a substance abuse issue? Did they have first-hand evidence that the doctor was cognitively impaired? Was the referring physician getting kickbacks from the specialist for referring patients to them? (This is a crime.)

If anything like these examples has been the case for you, you may be able to hold your referring physician liable for negligent referral if that referral caused you harm. Yet, proving negligent referral can be a challenge. If a doctor was basing their referral on positive feedback they’d received from other patients or even a doctor’s reputation, they may have had no knowledge of any issues. As a result, you’ll need a strong case in order to prevail.

The best first step if you believe that you or a loved one has suffered harm because a doctor is guilty of negligent referral is to get experienced legal guidance. This can help you determine whether you have a valid case that’s worth pursuing.