What If You Get Stalked by a Patient?

Mark Crane

Disclosures

August 02, 2017

In This Article

Are Physicians in Denial About Stalking?

"Doctors don't like to talk about being stalked," said Dr Appelbaum. "Many feel embarrassed by it, assuming that they must have done something wrong to trigger the stalking. So it has a low level of visibility in the medical community. Medical schools don't educate doctors about the risk. It may take the doctor a while to even recognize what's going on. Yet when I talk to groups of physicians and ask about it, I found it remarkable how many people have had this experience."

The Midwestern psychiatrist agrees. "Doctors are embarrassed by this. It seems so rare that there's a tendency to think this isn't really happening. We minimize it because it seems so improbable. Stalking is difficult to shoehorn into a diagnostic category."

"People tend to downplay events that, with hindsight, would be considered workplace violence, even though institutions are encouraging employees to report such incidents," said Dr Schouten. "Many healthcare staff still won't report acts of physical aggression they experience in the course of patient care, and they won't report stalking/harassment to hospital police/security until they (or their family members) become sufficiently frightened.

"The greatest risk of stalking-associated violence occurs when there has been an intimate physical relationship between the victim and the stalker. Increased risk also arises where the stalker believes, as part of a delusion, that there is a relationship with the victim and the stalker, who is angered by those who stand in the way of the relationship or at the victim's refusal to acknowledge it."

Warning Signs of Stalking

Stalking may start out innocuously, such as overly friendly attempts to establish social contact, bringing small gifts to the doctor, seeking extra therapeutic contacts, or a hug that lasts too long and makes the doctor feel uncomfortable.

"Many doctors shrug off the initial signs, hoping it will just go away," said Dr Appelbaum. "It isn't always clear that the activity will lead to stalking."

In a broad sense, stalkers are motivated by feelings of love or hate, he said. "Stalkers may be infatuated with the target of their stalking, a belief that can reach delusional levels, such as believing that the target really is in love with them but for some reason cannot acknowledge that openly. Or they may be furious at a physician, feeling that they have been harmed, ignored, or humiliated and they're looking to retaliate."

Dr Appelbaum first became aware that he was being stalked when one of his patients mentioned in therapy that she'd seen him playing with his son in front of his house. "She lived 30 miles away from me and I'm not listed in the phone book. She had gone to some lengths to find out where I lived. This was very unsettling. I confronted her and said it was inappropriate for her to be driving by my house. That stopped her but doesn't always work for everyone."

"There is a tendency among some patients to mistake simple kindness for a larger, more intimate doctor-patient relationship," said the Midwestern psychiatrist. "Let's say that the patient goes to a bookstore for a book signing. They shake the author's hand. From that they can think that they have a real relationship. They can overread the situation."

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