Can I claim against my general practitioner (GP) for failure to refer to a specialist?

Claims against doctors are not just limited to those where a surgeon makes a mistake during a procedure. Most people think that medical negligence just includes a surgeon cutting something they shouldn’t have during a surgery, or leaving a theatre utensil behind in a patient. Medical negligence claims are much broader than this.

GP’s owe a duty of care to all their patients. A key aspect of their job is diagnosing a potential illness or medical condition and referring patients for appropriate treatment which often means referring to a medical specialist.

So can my GP be negligent for failure to refer to a specialist?

This question has been recently addressed by a court in New South Wales and the answer is yes.

The matter before the court was one involving alleged negligent conduct of the general practitioner to provide appropriate care and management. The Plaintiff in this case had been working at a Caltex service station and on the evening of October 2011 he was threatened by a man with a 30cm kitchen knife, which resulted in injuries to the palm of his index and middle fingers on his left hand. When the plaintiff consulted the GP he failed to conduct an extensive examination of the plaintiff’s hand and did not refer him to a hand specialist.

The plaintiff subsequently went to another GP because his hand was swelling and the pain was intense. He was sent for an x-ray and was then referred to a hand surgeon. It was determined that there had been a total severing of the tendons.

The court held that a reasonable general practitioner in the circumstances should have referred the plaintiff to a hand surgeon and/or the emergency department of a hospital for consideration of repair of the tendons. By failing to do so the GP breached his duty of care to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff was awarded the sum of $206,000.

This case demonstrates that GP’s must turn their mind to the need to refer a patient for further investigations, whether it be for investigations such as scans or to a specialist or a hospital in certain circumstances.

We often see this situation arise in cases of delayed diagnosis of adenocarcinoma. One common example is situations where a GP fails to refer patients to a general surgeon who can conduct further investigatory procedures such as looking inside the stomach or bowel, which would have led to an earlier carcinoma diagnosis.

Claims against your GP may not be obvious at first instance. But if you believe that your GP has failed to refer you to a specialist or for further medical tests, we suggest you seek legal advice to ensure that your legal rights are protected.