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Can Doctors Refuse Care to Unvaccinated Patients?

Health & Gender Policy Brief #135 | By: S Bhimji | October 4, 2021

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Policy Summary

The coronavirus pandemic has created a lot of friction and unhappiness in society. Despite the continuing spread of the virus by the delta variant, a significant number of Americans are refusing to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons. And in almost every industry hundreds of workers are now asking for all kinds of exemptions. 

The number of unvaccinated people has overwhelmed the emergency rooms and occupied the much-needed ICU beds for other critically ill patients as well. In fact, in many hospitals, the congestion has meant that some patients have to be transported hundreds of miles away from care, which further adds to  healthcare costs.

The delta variant cases are crushing the rate of hospitalization but chiefly in areas of the county with low vaccination rates, especially the south. In fact, in many southern states, the crisis is so critical that even people with gunshots are waiting on gurneys for days. 

Elective surgery for thousands of people across the nation has been canceled or delayed because of the emergent need to look after Covid patients. While the federal government continues to waver about its Covid response, some doctors have gone online and said that they will refuse care for unvaccinated patients. The question is, ‘can doctors refuse to look after unvaccinated patients?’

Policy Analysis

Can a doctor use the vaccination status of the individual to determine who receives care when resources are scarce?

Some physicians have gone online and stated they will refuse care of unvaccinated Covid patients. While this may sound bravado in the fight against Covid, there are legal and ethical repercussions to this approach. 

First, there are the ethical implications of refusing medical care; the entire basis of medicine has one goal- to ‘do no more harm’ to the patient. Secondly, there is an entire demographic of people who would be considered as ‘undesirable’ or ‘unworthy of care’ but physicians have been offering them the best care since formal medicine evolved. There are people who commit violent crimes, alcoholics, domestic abusers, child killers, drug users, murderers, pedophiles, smokers, rapists, and the list is endless- and to date, no physician has denied these folks care. 

So how is it justified that care cannot be provided to people who are not vaccinated against the coronavirus? We even offer life-saving liver and heart transplant surgery to prisoners. 

But most important is that when an unvaccinated Covid patient visits the doctor with complaints of difficulty breathing, fever, malaise, or cough, these symptoms are not specific to Covid but could be due to pneumonia, lung cancer, lung fibrosis, emphysema, heart failure- all treatable conditions but without investigations, there is no way to know the cause of the symptoms. 

Photo taken from: The New York Post – Alabama doctor refuses to treat the unvaccinated

Plus, if the patient is refused treatment and he/she goes on to die because of a missed diagnosis of a heart attack or untreated pneumonia, the physician may face a case of medical malpractice involving negligence. 

The law is clear on one aspect of healthcare- no patient in an emergency can be denied care- and the repercussions for refusing care are serious both for the physician and the facility where he or she works. The consensus of health experts is that refusing care no matter how unsavory the person is runs opposite to the fundamentals of medicine. 

For now, conversations about refusing to treat unvaccinated people are few and far between but anecdotal reports indicate that many physicians would like to refuse treatment to unvaccinated people if they had a choice. 

But all physicians who want to venture into this ‘perilous’ healthcare with their emotions better beware- if a patient dies as a refusal of treatment, this may not only result in a medical malpractice case but the state licensing boards  have the power to rescind the medical license.

As ugly as the Covid numbers sound, rather than refusing care, physicians should make an effort to educate the unvaccinated and direct their rage at the politicians for not making the right policies.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

The Physician’s Oath: Historical Perspectives

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5755201/

Medical negligence: Coverage of the profession, duties, ethics, case law, and enlightened defense – A legal perspective

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2779963/

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