Avoiding Legal Trouble

Should You Refuse To Treat Patients Whose Parents Refuse To Vaccinate Them To Protect Yourself From Liability?

If you're a family doctor or a pediatrician, it's bound to happen sooner or later: you'll be faced with a parent who wants a medical exemption form filled out so that he or she doesn't have to get a child vaccinated. What do you do? If you want to stay out of court, you should consider dropping the child from your practice. It may sound harsh, but it may also be the only way to legally protect yourself. 

You could be asked to do one of two things that you don't want to do.

The anti-vaccination movement (or anti-vaxxers) represents about 9% of the U.S. population. That's not an insignificant number. Many anti-vaxxers fervently believe, despite medical evidence to the contrary, that vaccinations lead to a variety of ills, including disorders like autism.

As such, you may face an anti-vaxxer who shows up at your office demanding an exemption that will satisfy state laws in order to not vaccinate his or her child. If you refuse, you may be asked to sign a form stating that you acknowledge all of the (real or not) dangers of vaccines and give your personal guarantee of their safety.

Forms like that are put out by anti-vaxxers to supposedly "educate" doctors that they believe are simply uninformed of the real dangers of vaccines. In reality, it puts you into an unfortunate position of either capitulating to the parent's demands or signing a form that attests to all sorts of unlikely research on your part and accepting responsibility for the impossible (that nothing will ever go wrong).

If you sign the form, you could face a personal injury lawsuit down the line if the parent decides that anything that's wrong with the child is the result of the vaccines that you administered. While a lawsuit like that might not be successful in court, you'd still have to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of defending yourself.

Of course, you're not going to sign the form. You already have plenty of liability issues without adding to them. However, unless your patient actually qualifies for an exemption, you can't offer that either.

You also have a responsibility toward the law and other patients.

As a medical professional, you know that you're required by law to report all suspected child abuse or neglect. Does refusing to vaccinate a child qualify? The American Academy of Pediatrics views medical neglect as a form of child abuse, and a parent's choice to purposefully allow his or her child to remain susceptible to an easily preventable disease could be considered medical neglect. If you don't report the anti-vaxxer to the child protective services in your state and the child falls ill, you could face potential legal problems that way as well.

While you may want to continue trying to work with the parent and hopefully broaden his or her view, you also have other patients to consider. If you have a busy practice that includes infants and those who have auto-immune disorders or other health problems, you could be exposing your other patients in the waiting room to diseases carried by the unvaccinated children. That could also open the door to liability and a lawsuit since you are knowingly putting some of your patients at risk.

Having to dismiss a patient from your practice is never a pleasant situation. However, it may ultimately be the only way to protect your other patients -- and yourself -- from risk. If you need more information or want to discuss your potential liability, talk to a personal injury attorney (such as one from Walz Law Office) near you.