Why Your Patient May Be Stalking You

Mark Crane

Disclosures

August 23, 2012

In This Article

Why Physicians Don't Report Stalking

"Many doctors who seek my advice about stalking situations haven't notified hospital security, their department heads, or police," Dr. Appelbaum commented. "They've tried to ignore it and hoped it would go away. Or they tried to reason with the stalker, which rarely works."

Ronald Schouten, MD, JD, Director of the Law and Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, agreed. "Doctors often blame themselves and ask, 'What did I do to provoke this?' We doctors are problem-solvers who think we can fix anything. Sometimes that can be tragic, because police and others should have been notified earlier."

An Australian study found that many physicians were in denial about patients' aggressive behavior.[1] Others feared that their victimization would be equated with incompetence or that complaints of harassment wouldn't be believed.

A 2011 study looking at Toronto-based physicians who had been stalked added some additional motivations for silence.[2] The study found that 23% felt embarrassed by the situation, 46% of the victims felt anxious, 40% were frightened, and 25% felt helpless to deal with the problem. Karen Abrams, MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and a coauthor on the study, commented that these concerns inhibit physicians from seeking help.

Dr. Abrams noted that despite the high prevalence of stalking behavior on the part of patients, there have been few studies of physician responses -- especially in North America. But all of the studies found the same thing: Overwhelming majorities of physicians reported that nothing in their medical training prepared them for how to deal with stalking.

Who Is Most Frequently Stalked?

"Stalking can happen in any specialty," said Dr. Appelbaum. "But it occurs most often when the doctor is involved with the patient over a long period."

Perhaps for this reason, psychiatrists are stalked the most, usually by patients who want a romantic attachment. Surgeons and obstetricians/gynecologists are the next most likely to be stalked, but typically because a patient is angry about the treatment. Primary care physicians also are targets.

What are possible motives? "Patients sometimes want to get closer to their doctors," said Dr. Schouten. "They could be anxious about the treatment. Thinking that the doctor is their friend makes it less threatening. Some patients are just lonely. Others may feel they need to demonstrate that they are equal to their doctors."

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