Is Doctor/Patient Romance Becoming More Acceptable?

Neil Chesanow

Disclosures

January 14, 2015

In This Article

A Significant Change in Attitudes

Nevertheless, our latest ethics survey revealed that this traditional taboo, although still embraced by most physicians, has an increasing number of exceptions.

The survey found that 68% of the respondents felt that an intimate relationship with a patient, whether current or former, was unequivocally unethical and wrong.[1] That's down from Medscape's 2010 ethics survey, in which 83% of the respondents took that position.[2]

Still, it's clear that physicians are typically against becoming involved with a current patient. In both our 2014 survey and our 2010 survey,[2] only 1% of the respondents felt it was permissible to have sex with a current patient.[1]

"Consenting adults may do what they please," a doctor wrote in a representative comment.

"If both of us were single and were attracted to each other, I don't see any reason why this would be unethical," another doctor observed. "I think it might be awkward or uncomfortable," he conceded, "but not unethical."

More significant is the change in the number of physicians who believe it's not ethically problematic to date a former patient after a period of time has elapsed. In our 2014 and 2010 surveys, we suggested 6 months as a possible waiting period before becoming romantically involved.

In 2014, over one fifth (22%) of the survey respondents asserted that this was ethically permissible.[1] In our 2010 ethics survey, only 12% of participating doctors agreed with that time restriction.[2]

"If a doctor and patient do fall in love, the only correct way to solve the dilemma is to end the doctor/patient relationship," a physician wrote in a comment typical of doctors who subscribed to this view. "Then possibly start your romantic relationship—if it is mutual—but only after the patient has established care with somebody else in your specialty."

"Once they are no longer your patient, I do not see why it is unethical," another doctor commented.

"Not for me, but wouldn't think it wrong if someone else did it," a doctor believed, adding, "Never for a current patient."

In 2014, 10% of respondents felt that whether it was ethically permissible for a doctor to have intimate relations with a patient had to be judged on a case-by-case basis, rather than condemning the practice across the board.[1] This was a significant increase since our 2010 survey, where only 5% of participating physicians felt likewise.[2]

Among the 2014 commenters, in contrast to the shrinking majority of physicians who insist that a doctor should always be in control of his or her emotions, was a frequently expressed belief that even for doctors, love can sometimes be blind.

"You cannot fight sexual chemistry and attraction, so if there was a potentially genuine possible romance, then the doctor should transfer care to someone else and thus void his doctor/patient relationship," a doctor wrote.

"I wouldn't do it, but it has happened with a colleague," another doctor admitted. "Maybe I shouldn't state this, but we are only human."

"We're all human," another physician concurred. "As long as the unequal power equation is over or markedly reduced, there's no reason two people should be prohibited or even discouraged from seeking happiness together."

"This can be tricky," a doctor confessed, "but love, true love—why not?"

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