Can a Doctor Date a Patient?

Ever since the Hippocrates Oath came into being, medical ethics have been upheld as an important part of the behavior of doctors in a community. And one of the most significant aspects of this code of ethics regulating the medical community is the relationship between a doctor and patient. Almost all civil societies of the world uphold that the first and foremost responsibility of a doctor is to the patient’s wellbeing. Dating or engaging in a sexual relationship with the patient thus becomes a highly sensitive issue in this case.

Almost all developed societies prohibit any romantic or sexual relationship between a doctor and a current patient. The American Medical Association is unequivocal about this and under its Code of Medical Ethics 8.14, notes that, “Sexual contact that occurs concurrent with the patient-physician relationship constitutes sexual misconduct”1. Likewise the British Medical Association advises: "As a general principle, sexual relationships or emotional dependence between doctors and their patients or the close relatives of patients must be discouraged."  It further goes on to say that “Doctors who discover that a person with whom they are developing a personal or sexual relationship is also their patient should immediately cease the relationship or take reasonable steps to ensure that medical care is provided by another practitioner."2

There are several important reasons why doctor-patient dating or a romantic relationship is discouraged in most societies. For one, the doctor is in a position of power over the patient. By virtue of their education and training, doctors are armed with the knowledge of what is wrong with a patient and how to treat him/her. In such a case if a doctor becomes romantically interested in a patient, he/she may succumb to the temptation of using his/her medical knowledge to advance his/her romantic aspirations and not necessarily in a positive manner.

Also when a patient comes to a physician, most likely the former is ill and thus vulnerable to whatever the doctor says or tells him/her to do. When a person’s physical and mental faculties are thus compromised, any relationship entered into is usually not from a position of strength and equality but rather weakness and vulnerability.

Among the strongest arguments against a current doctor-patient romantic relationship is the possibility of a physician’s professional judgement being compromised. When a doctor is romantically involved with a patient, it is extremely likely that the former’s emotions may thwart his/her objectivity and professional prudence. Thus a doctor may be motivated to treat or withhold treatment to his/her patient in a way which is not entirely in the latter’s interest. In the process the patient may suffer and his/her well-being compromised which runs against all principles of medical ethics. Indeed the AMA’s Code of Medical Ethics on the Physician-Patient relationship states that “The relationship between patient and physician is based on trust and gives rise to physicians’ ethical obligations to place patients’ welfare above their own self-interest and above obligations to other groups, and to advocate for their patients’ welfare.”3

However laws and ethics are as much subject to change as are social dynamics of which ultimately form a part. Thus in recent times there has been a debate whether doctors can date patients under special circumstances – like when the professional relationship between them has ceased. On the face of it, a romantic relationship between a doctor and a former patient should pose no objection. According to the American Medical Association policy, "At a minimum, a physician's ethical duties include terminating the physician-patient relationship before initiating a dating, romantic, or sexual relationship with a patient." In 2006, a new draft of the General Medical Council - the body that regulates doctors in UK-  maintained that though doctors should not use their professional position to pursue relationships, it acknowledged that there might circumstances when dating an ex-patient could be permissible - something not covered by the previous 2001 guidelines2.

The primary argument in favor of the possibility of a romantic relationship between a doctor and a former patient lies in the fact that the wishes of two consenting adults should be respected. If two adults who are not currently in a doctor-patient relationship and who are completely aware of their situation and their consequences desire to date each other, there should be no objections from any quarter. Doctors point out that since they make life and death choices every day in their professional lives, they should be trusted to have the wisdom and objectivity to make a decision affecting their personal life too.

A second equally reasonable and a far more practical argument in favor of doctors being allowed to date former patients comes mainly from the ranks of family physicians. Doctors practicing family medicine in small communities and villages are likely to have treated almost the entire population some time or other in the past in their professional capacity – this would make it well nigh for a single doctor to find a partner in the village since practically everyone is a former patient.

And yet certain precautions must be maintained, warn most medical bodies. Even when a doctor is no longer seeing someone as a patient but as a partner, he/she will continue to have access to the individual’s medical records and medical history. In case the romantic relationship ends acrimoniously, the physical goaded by negative feelings may compromise the former patient’s medical records thus breaching the important codes of confidentiality and objectivity. Also if the relationship between a doctor and his/her now partner continues the emotional dependence of the earlier doctor-patient relationship, then even the current relationships is far from healthy and equal.

There is little doubt that a relationship between a doctor and patient is fraught with complications. However once the professional relationships has ceased completely, it may be possible for a doctor and a former patient to have a fulfilling dating experience provided the new relationship is equal and emotionally healthy.

Reference:
 

  1. American Medica Association - Opinion 8.14 - Sexual Misconduct in the Practice of Medicine
     
  2. BBC News - Health - Should doctors date ex-patients
     
  3. American Medica Association - Opinion 10.015 - The Patient-Physician Relationship