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How to avoid unwanted attention from patients

At this time of year, many doctors will be receiving gifts and thank you cards from grateful patients. While it’s nice to be appreciated, occasionally gifts and cards can leave doctors feeling uneasy because they believe the patient may want more than a professional relationship.

With the availability of social media, doctors are more accessible to patients now. The MDU has helped around 100 members over the last five years with advice on how to deal with patients wanting more than a professional relationship. Amorous advances can range from receiving unwanted letters and gifts and more commonly now, text or social media messages, which can feel particularly intrusive. If approaches are not nipped in the bud, or even unwittingly encouraged, things can get out of hand.

On rare occasions the situation can even escalate to the doctor being stalked or harassed, with the patient turning up at the doctor’s work or home. The case of GP Dr Eleanor Aston, who was stalked by a patient for seven years and is now seeking an increase in sentencing for stalking offences, was highlighted by Pulse recently.

The MDU has seen cases of doctors referred to the GMC by patients alleging a fabricated sexual relationship, or even complaints to the police of sexual assault.

What you should do

Your medical defence organisation can support you if facing this difficult situation so involve us early on if you have reason to believe that a patient wants a personal relationship with you. If this happens, it’s important to make it clear to the patient that their behaviour is inappropriate and must stop.

If that fails and your professional relationship with the patient has broken down, you may need to transfer the care of the patient to a colleague. Explain why you have decided to do this to the patient. If, however, you continue to care for the patient, it is advisable to use a chaperone for all consultations.

Ensure you also inform your senior partners of the situation and keep a log of all inappropriate contacts from the patient. If you feel threatened or are in danger, you may need to consider reporting the patient to the police.

There are some actions you can take to try to avoid receiving unwanted attention from patients. For example, accepting gifts from patients can be misconstrued, so consider very carefully whether it may be better to politely refuse a gift. Do not use personal email addresses or mobile numbers for work purposes. Withhold your telephone number if you must use it to contact a patient and review your social media privacy settings.

Dr Beverley Ward is a medicolegal adviser at the MDU