The legality and ethics of refusing to treat overweight patients

Although physicians have the right to choose their patients, recent stories of doctors refusing to treat overweight or obese people have raised questions as to whether such practices rise to the level of discrimination.

In a commentary for the New England Journal of Medicine, Holly Fernandez Lynch, J.D., professor at Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, advised physicians as to how selective they can be, legally and ethically, when it comes to deciding which patients to treat.

"Discrimination on some grounds may be legally impermissible, whereas discrimination on other grounds is only morally blameworthy," she wrote.

Although weight has not traditionally been treated as a protected category under civil rights laws, Lynch cited several regions, including the District of Columbia, San Francisco and New York, in which new legislation specifically prohibits weight-based discrimination.

In addition, Lynch discussed whether physicians could run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing services to obese patients. 

"If doctors' concerns about accepting obese patients were rooted in a lack of adequate equipment, for example, the lawful solution would probably be to obtain that equipment, not to bar such patients," she wrote. "None of this implies that a doctor can never reject a prospective patient who is disabled by obesity; it means only that obesity itself cannot be the reason."

To learn more:
- read the commentary from the New England Journal of Medicine

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