When Is It Okay to Date a Patient?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


April 03, 2019

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine. Medscape recently conducted a poll of more than 5000 physicians on a subject that [affects everyone], no matter your politics, your medical specialty, or your educational background: love and romance.[1]

This particular survey was [conducted to determine] when physicians feel that it is acceptable to date a patient. Roughly speaking, the answer came back that if there had been a 6-month time period where you hadn't treated the patient—a 6-month lapse in terms of doctor-patient interaction—it would be okay, at least to the poll respondents, relative to romantic interaction or efforts at romance.

I think that is a little bit of a surprise. It's probably different from what we might have seen years ago. My hunch is that more physicians might have said it's okay to date a patient; however, given the #MeToo movement, concerns about lawsuits, and concerns about misunderstanding when someone is in a doctor-patient relationship—even weakening of the doctors' prerogative to act or engage as they wish with a patient from 50 or 60 years ago—I think we're seeing a change in morals. We now see more doctors saying either don't do it at all or you have to have an interval before you [consider pursuing] a relationship.

I happen to think that the 6-month standard was completely arbitrary, completely random, and is not grounded in any social science, but it makes some common sense. Again, it's important to keep in mind that if you're treating someone who you're thinking about dating, you are dating, or who is a family member, you don't want to be doing that unless it's a minor kind of treatment. It may distort your ability to objectively assess a health problem if they're your [spouse or longtime partner]. It's better to have someone else treat them if possible.

If you're thinking about going out with someone, it's better to say, "Look, I'd like to have a chance at a romantic relationship. Maybe we need to look into having someone else provide your care." It is well established that romance or strong emotional feelings can distort judgment and that these feelings can get in the way of providing both the best diagnosis and the best possible care, and can even lead to [a physician] nagging the patient to comply and do what they ought to be doing if [the physician is] going to take on their particular illness or disease.

I think there should be a break between seeing a person and deciding that this is somebody you might want to have a romantic relationship with—6 months makes sense to me. It just seems intuitively long enough. Somebody for sure is going to say to me, "But if I just took a mole off somebody, you're telling me that I have to wait 6 months before I can ask them out?"

Well, I would say that some of this is case by case. There are minor medical interactions after which we are not likely to see the person again in the next week or two, much less in 6 months, because they came in for something trivial. Maybe, there, you could make the case that you wouldn't have to wait as long.

The general rule is, in a serious medical relationship, don't have a romantic interaction or a strong emotional connection—a family member or even a close personal friend—with the patient. Try, if it's possible, to have someone else deliver the care. I know it is not always possible. There are specialties where there's no one else around for hundreds of miles or where there are no doctors around except a rural practitioner—I understand all of that.

I understand how we may have to use common sense. Common sense also says, ethically and practically, don't get involved with someone for whom you're trying to provide care. It's bad medicine.

I'm Art Caplan from the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone. Thanks for watching.


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