Is It Becoming Okay to Date a Patient?

Shelly Reese

Disclosures

December 23, 2018

In This Article

Relationships Vary on a Case-by-Case Basis

Consent is a mandatory baseline for any romantic relationship, and intent is a hard thing to gauge, particularly at the outset of a relationship. It's unrealistic to assume that a single doctor—or anyone else venturing out on a first date—has marriage on their minds.

"For me, the issue is professionalism," Caplan says. "I see boundaries as set by professional ethics."

Doctors shouldn't look for a single, cut-and-dried answer on the topic. Different standards may apply to the oncologist who treated a patient's cancer and the podiatrist who removed their bunion. As for whether a particular relationship is acceptable after 6 months or 6 years, the question is open to debate.

And that's a good thing, even if there's disagreement, because it challenges doctors to explore different facets of the question, insists Ken Goodman, PhD, co-director of ethics programs at the University of Miami.

"We are playing with hypotheticals, and that is a good idea, but the facts always matter and they will shape the right answer. This is an ancient profession," he says, and whereas some survey respondents may suggest that medicine is no different from other professions, Goodman maintains that it is.

I would not fault someone who, after an appropriate length of time, wanted to have a relationship with a former patient—but the tricky part is, what is an appropriate length of time?

"Being a physician is different from being a gardener or a greengrocer," says Goodman. "I'm sorry if you feel disrespected. I'm sorry if you feel there has been an erosion in your status or prestige. I'm sorry if you don't like being an employee, but the standards of professionalism haven't shifted. I would not fault someone who, after an appropriate length of time, wanted to have a relationship with a former patient—but the tricky part is, what is an appropriate length of time?"

Standards of professionalism are equally important from a lawyer's point of view.

"There are two sides to every story, and different people will have different perceptions," says Bruce Vande Vusse, a Detroit attorney specializing in healthcare litigation. "What sounds reasonable to one person will make another person ask, 'What were you thinking?'" Physicians need to bear in mind that a soured relationship with a patient could result in a legal case or a medical board disciplinary proceeding, and although the physician might prevail, patients and members of the public may take a dim view of the doctor's professionalism.

"A lot of things are legal, but that doesn't make them a good idea," notes Steven Babitsky, a lawyer and president of SEAK Inc., a physician training program. "I think the 64% who said 'no' to dating a patient got it right, frankly. I understand where the others are coming from: Consenting adults shouldn't be denied the opportunity for a relationship, but I think when you're talking about doctors and patients, the scenario is rife with problems."

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