Doctors are being warned to consider whether they are revealing too much about themselves online and being put at risk of unwanted romantic approaches and stalking by patients.
The warning comes after the UK’s Medical Defence Union revealed it was supporting around 20 to 30 doctors and nurses each year whose patients have overstepped professional boundaries by acting on their romantic feelings.
Incidents reported by doctors range from patients asking the doctor out for a drink to more persistent behaviour such as sending inappropriate cards and gifts, attempting to embrace the doctor or contacting them via social media, email, text message or messaging app.
In some cases the patient researched the doctor or nurse and sometimes their family and friends using information found online.
Dr Ellie Mein, MDU medico-legal adviser, said:
“Medical professionals can be understandably very distressed by unwanted advances from patients. This is especially the case when contact is made via a personal mobile, email address or social media account as those targeted can feel their privacy has been breached.
“With personal information being more easily accessible, we are advising our members to consider protecting their privacy by reviewing online data. Consider whether home addresses, personal emails and details of family members are accessible including on business and company websites and in published research papers. It’s also important to review social media security settings.
“Dealing with a patient who wants a romantic relationship can be hugely difficult and distressing for those involved. However, by politely but firmly declining a patient’s advance and explaining the importance of maintaining a professional boundary, the professional doctor/patient relationship can sometimes be restored”.
In 2019 the medical defence organisation Avant advised doctors to have a ‘whole of practice’ plan for how to avoid and deal with unwanted approaches and sexual harrassment by patients.
They said it was important to set clear limits and in extreme cases it may be necessary to end care of a patient if safety was at risk.
“It may be that in some cases issuing a formal warning or developing a behaviour agreement with the patient would be the more reasonable first step,” the organisation advised.