Why Your Patient May Be Stalking You

Mark Crane

Disclosures

August 23, 2012

In This Article

Introduction

A Massachusetts-based gynecologist had a 27-year-old patient who began stalking him. She believed he was in love with her. She sent him love letters and called him repeatedly, leaving sexually suggestive messages on his answering machine. She "ran into" him at the supermarket and arranged for her daughter to join the same playgroup as the physician's child, so that she could have an excuse to see him.

This extreme example of patient misbehavior is one of thousands faced by physicians. About 15%-20% of physicians have been stalked by a patient at some point during their careers, according to recent studies. Experts say the actual number is likely higher because physicians often don't report incidents.

"Stalking is remarkably common," according to Paul S. Appelbaum, MD, Director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, New York.

The legal definition of stalking varies by state, but it can be defined as repeated unwarranted intrusions that create apprehension in the victim. Stalking behaviors are not always overtly insidious. They can seem innocuous -- for example, seeking more appointments than medically necessary, calling too often, sending extra emails or other communications, or "chance" encounters outside the work context.

Less innocuous behaviors include loitering around the office, excessive curiosity about the physician's personal life, spreading rumors, sending gifts or threats, following the doctor, and vandalism.

Extreme forms of stalking, such as vandalism and violence, are less common, Dr. Appelbaum said. But if the physician doesn't set boundaries, it can escalate into inappropriate or even dangerous behaviors.

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