What If You Get Stalked by a Patient?

Mark Crane

Disclosures

August 02, 2017

In This Article

When a Patient Starts Stalking a Doctor

Psychiatrists at a Midwestern mental health clinic ordered a patient to be hospitalized because she was at acute risk to herself. After she was released, the woman embarked on a relentless years-long campaign of threatening phone calls and emails against the doctors and clinic.

"The threats of physical and sexual harm were intensifying," said a psychiatrist who asked not to be identified. "We contacted clinic security and police. They were supportive but neither could do much to help. Months will go by in between calls and then it starts up again. I estimate that we've had at least 600 calls over the past 5 years. She never really stopped."

"The experience really affects my whole outlook," he said. "I found a nail in my car tire and I immediately assumed the stalker did it. The patient wanted us to feel helpless and paranoid. She wanted to pull the strings instead of having doctors make decisions about her. The calls were her payback for the involuntary hospitalization."

Many physicians have reported more frightening examples, including death threats, a patient who made ugly scenes at a doctor's church, one who knew intensely personal details about the doctor's life, and others who've camped out by the doctor's house or the doctor's children's schools.

How Often Are Physicians Stalked?

There have been very few studies involving North American physicians and stalking. "The truth is, we don't really know what the prevalence is," said Ronald Schouten, MD, JD, director of the Law and Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"A meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in 2015 said that estimates ranged from the low single digits to more than 20%.[1] Most of the studies were flawed. A lot depends on how stalking is defined. Repetitive and persistent attempts at unwanted communications and/or physical contact is a common definition. The cases in which I have been asked to consult involved repeated, unwanted communications by email/letter/phone/social media or physical presence intended to harass or intimidate."

"The word 'stalking' may be somewhat misleading," said Paul S. Appelbaum, MD, director of the Division of Law, Ethics and Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. "It suggests a physical approach such as tailing someone or lurking at the doctor's office. That's unusual. It's more common to be stalked at a distance, via phone or email. Sometimes stalkers go online and post angry messages or threats on doctor-rating websites, Facebook, etc."

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