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Can Doctors Refuse To Treat Patients? (Under UK Law)

Can Doctors Refuse To Treat Patients? (Under UK Law)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

In the United Kingdom, healthcare professionals such as doctors, are ethically and legally obliged to provide healthcare services without discrimination.

However, this doesn’t mean that doctors always have to provide care against their will.

Doctors in the UK are able to refuse to treat patients under certain circumstances. Reasons for refusal of treatment can range from a breakdown of trust between the doctor and patient to clinical reasons, or even personal beliefs of the doctor, such as conscientious objection.

It is essential for both patients and doctors to understand their rights and responsibilities within these complex situations.

Patients have the right to refuse treatment themselves, but when a doctor chooses to refuse treatment, they must have valid grounds for their decision.

Moreover, doctors are bound by professional codes of conduct and laws that dictate how they navigate these challenging situations.

Key Takeaways

  • Doctors in the UK may refuse to treat a patient under specific circumstances but must have valid reasons for their decision.
  • Patients have the right to refuse treatment, while doctors must adhere to professional codes of conduct and laws when making such choices.
  • Conscientious objection and clinical reasons are some examples of acceptable grounds for a doctor to refuse treatment to a patient.

Reasons Why Doctors Can Refuse To Treat A Patient

In the UK, there are particular circumstances in which doctors may refuse to treat a patient.

Why Doctors Can Refuse To Treat A Patient Pixel Infographic
  1. Breakdown of trust: A doctor should end a professional relationship with a patient only when the breakdown of trust between them means that they cannot provide good clinical care for the patient. It is essential for the doctor to explain and justify their decisions and actions in such cases.
  2. Personal beliefs: It is acknowledged that doctors have their own personal beliefs and values. However, they must provide a good standard of practice and care to their patients. In instances where a doctor’s beliefs may conflict with the patient’s needs or preferences, they must inform the patient and offer alternative options where possible, ensuring that the patient’s care is not compromised.
  3. Patient behaviour: A doctor may refuse to treat a patient if the patient becomes aggressive, violent, or displays behaviour that threatens the safety of the practitioner or other patients and staff.
  4. Unsupported care: If a doctor believes that they lack the necessary skills, equipment, or knowledge to treat a patient adequately, they may decline to provide treatment, provided that the patient is informed of the decision and referred to a practitioner who can deliver the required care.
  5. Resource constraints: Doctors may face difficult decisions when it comes to allocating limited resources within the NHS. Sometimes, the NHS may refuse to provide very expensive treatments or services if the cost exceeds the potential benefits for the patient.

It is important to note that these reasons for refusing treatment must be considered on a case-by-case basis, and doctors should always act in the best interests of their patients while adhering to professional guidelines and standards, such as those provided by the General Medical Council.

Non-Acceptable Reasons For Refusal

Doctors can’t refuse to treat a patient without a justified reason.

For example, it’s not acceptable for a doctor to refuse treatment based on a patient’s personal characteristics.

This includes factors such as race, gender, social class, age, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, or disability.

Refusing treatment on these grounds would be considered discriminatory and in violation of medical ethics.

A junior doctor helps to plaster a little boy's broken arm
Doctors can’t discriminate against patients when deciding who to treat

Additionally, a doctor cannot refuse treatment solely because of a patient’s medical condition or their need for specific treatments.

Historically, patients suffering from HIV/AIDS might be refused care from certain doctors and nurses.

Moreover, doctors cannot remove a patient from their practice list due to a non-acceptable reason, such as being related to a patient who has already been removed from the list.

Medical professionals are expected to maintain their focus on the patient’s well-being and treat each individual case fairly and objectively.

What Rights Do Patients Have To Treatment?

Patients in the UK have certain rights when it comes to receiving treatment from the NHS.

The NHS Constitution sets out these rights, which include being involved in decisions about their care and being treated with kindness, dignity, and respect.

Healthcare staff are expected to follow codes of practice and guidance regarding patient treatment and confidentiality.

One significant aspect of patients’ rights is their ability to consent to or refuse a specific treatment.

In the case of life-sustaining treatments, such as ventilation or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), patients can refuse these treatments even if they could potentially keep them alive.

Furthermore, if a patient feels that the NHS has not acted appropriately, they have the right to file a complaint and may even take legal action if the NHS has breached the law.

Importantly, however, patients don’t have the right to demand treatment.

You can’t go to your doctor tomorrow and demand to have your appendix out just because you’re worried you might get appendicitis.

A doctor might offer a patient an appendicectomy if they believe they’re actively suffering from appendicitis, which the patient totally has the right to accept or refuse, but a patient can’t demand the operation from a healthcare professional just because they fancy it.

Conscientious Objection

In the United Kingdom, healthcare professionals, including doctors, can refuse to provide certain treatments to patients based on their personal beliefs or conscientious objection.

The General Medical Council (GMC) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) provide guidance for doctors and nurses, respectively, on how to handle situations involving conscientious objection.

The GMC guidance states that patients have a right to information about their condition and the options available to them.

If a doctor has a conscientious objection to a treatment or procedure that may be clinically appropriate for the patient, they must inform the patient that they do not provide the particular treatment or procedure, being careful not to cause distress.

Doctors should not refuse to treat the health consequences of lifestyle choices to which they object because of their beliefs.

While conscientious objection is recognised and respected, all patients must be treated with respect and not be unfairly discriminated against.

In cases where a doctor or nurse may face a difficult decision due to their beliefs, they may choose to talk through the issues with a medico-legal adviser or seek guidance from their professional counsel.

Involuntary Refusal

Aside from the reasons discussed so far, there can also be more logistical reasons as to why a doctor may have to refuse a patient treatment.

Resource Constraints

There can be instances where a doctor may not be able to treat a patient due to resource constraints.

These limitations can include staff shortages, inadequate facilities, or insufficient equipment. ITU beds during the recent COVID-19 pandemic are a good example of this.

In such circumstances, it may become necessary for the healthcare provider to prioritise patients according to the severity of their condition, urgency, and availability of resources.

This may result in involuntary refusal of treatment to some patients, in which case, efforts should be made to ensure timely alternative care options are explored.

Organisational Policy

In addition to resource constraints, a doctor may be unable to treat a patient if there are specific organisational policies in place.

For example, particular healthcare providers or medical facilities might have strict guidelines on the referral criteria for certain treatments, extending waiting times or necessitating a separate assessment before provisioning care.

It is essential that healthcare professionals follow these guidelines, as deviating from them might incur legal consequences.

In such scenarios, the doctor should provide clear information to the patient about the reasons for the refusal and the potential alternatives available to address their health concerns.

Final Thoughts

It is essential for both healthcare professionals and patients to understand the possible consequences of refusal, to communicate effectively, and to make informed decisions about medical treatments.

Open discussions between doctors and patients can help ensure ethical and compassionate care and maintain the trust required for positive healthcare outcomes.

While doctors can refuse to treat patients in the UK, it’s not something that any doctor relishes doing and is almost always an action of last resort.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.