Is It Becoming Okay to Date a Patient?

Shelly Reese

Disclosures

December 23, 2018

In This Article

Are More Physicians Saying It's Okay to Date a Patient?

Physician-patient romance has long been considered taboo, but physicians are increasingly questioning exactly where the dogmatic line in the sand lies.

Since 2010, the percentage of doctors who say it is or might be acceptable to become romantically or sexually involved with a patient or with someone who had been a patient as recently as 6 months earlier, has increased greatly, according to Medscape's Ethics Report 2018: Money, Romance, and Patients. Two percent of the 5200 physician respondents said it would be acceptable to date a current patient, and 25% greenlighted dating someone who had been a patient as recently as 6 months earlier. That's up from 1% and 12%, respectively, in 2010. The percentage of physicians who say the acceptability of dating a patient would depend on the situation (10%) has likewise doubled over the past 8 years.

"Sexual exploitation is not ethical, but romance does happen," noted one physician. Others weighed in with such comments as "two consenting adults should be able to have a romantic relationship," "as long as both welcome it," and "as long as it is reciprocal and/or consensual and outside the office setting."

In focusing on consent, a number of physicians objected to the notion that an imbalance of power between the two parties—an often-cited argument against doctor-patient romances—constitutes a barrier.

"In spite of what ethicists have to say on the topic, a competent adult is either that or not," wrote one. "You can't say they are competent in one aspect of their life but not another, as that is a very paternalistic view and that is not ethical either. Clearly as a physician, you have special access to your patient, but does that by definition make a relationship unethical? Just because there has been bad behavior in the past by some, you cannot regulate human behavior and feelings like this."

Others suggested that the power imbalance isn't as significant as it once was and that doctors should not be held to a higher standard than other professionals when it comes to romance.

"I don't think physicians have the clout they once had. Often they are seen as just another worker now. In other words, the physician isn't seen as having authority over his/her patients," wrote one physician. Another noted, "We are all human. Many relationships start at work in other fields, so why not the medical field?"

In supporting their responses, physicians expressed views that reflect shifting societal dynamics, including the #MeToo movement and the perception of physicians' roles in society. The result was a general sense that relationships are ill-suited to one-size-fits-all ethical solutions.

 

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