Why Your Patient May Be Stalking You

Mark Crane

Disclosures

August 23, 2012

In This Article

Pay Attention to Warning Signs

Stalking isn't always obvious, especially at the beginning. Patients may try subtle things to stretch the boundaries of the physician/patient relationship.

The initial behavior may be a hug that seems a bit too friendly or other actions that aren't blatant but leave the doctor feeling uncomfortable. "It may be harmless if a patient asks where you're going on vacation," said Dr. Schouten. "But it's a red flag if he wants to know details that go beyond normal curiosity, such as which hotel you're staying in, for how long, and what activities you plan to do."

Dr. Appelbaum agreed that discomfort is a red flag. "Stalking or prestalking is an action that the doctor feels crosses a boundary." He advised physicians to confront the behavior immediately, even if it has not yet become full-blown stalking. "The doctor should nicely but firmly indicate that the relationship must be professional and cannot lead to a social friendship. The doctor might say, 'I hope you won't mind that I don't joke around with you at the office. It would distract us from paying attention to your health issues.'"

Another red flag is any sense that the patient has been gathering information about you or conducting surveillance. One of Dr. Appelbaum's patients mentioned in therapy that she'd seen him playing with his son in front of his house.

"This woman lived 30 miles away from me, and my address wasn't listed in the phone book," he said. "She had to go to some lengths to find out where I lived. It was very unsettling. I confronted her right away and told her it's inappropriate for her to be driving by my house. That stopped her. But ultimately, I had to terminate our relationship for other reasons."

Protecting Privacy in the Internet Age

To protect privacy in general and to discourage potential stalkers, physicians usually do not release their home address, cell phone numbers, and other personal information. That's more difficult in the Internet age, where search engines can reveal more information than you realize.

It isn't hard for a patient to find out where you live, what you paid for your house, what political contributions you made, or who your spouse is, without your even knowing about it.

Social media, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, create situations in which patients may seek to "friend" you or establish a relationship. "With Facebook, we put personal information in a context that encourages interaction," said Dr. Appelbaum. "That's fine for our friends but not for our patients. Doctors should use privacy controls so that friends can see your page but patients can't."

"Physicians sometimes forget that Facebook and Twitter aren't private," Dr. Schouten added. "Doctors need to project a professional image at all times. Never post personal information or photos of yourself drinking or dancing."

How should doctors respond to "friend" requests? "I appreciate that you want to friend me, but I don't spend much time on Facebook and it's important to me to keep our relationship strictly professional. I hope you understand," he suggested.

With the advent of doctor-rating Websites, cyberstalking is more prevalent. Patients who are dissatisfied with your care may trash your reputation on these sites without you even being aware of it.

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association recommends that physicians Google their own name, home address, and phone number.[3] You may find a site that lists personal information or slanderous comments. You might try contacting the Webpage administrator to ask that the information be deleted.

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