Help! I have feelings for a patient

A foundation doctor feels conflicted after being asked out for a drink by a patient, and calls the MDU advice line for advice on what to do.

The scenario

While working at a GP practice, a foundation doctor found themselves treating the same patient over the course of a few months. Both the patient and the foundation doctor began to develop an attraction, and the patient asked the doctor to go out for a drink. The doctor suspected it may go beyond a drink and wanted to accept, but knew it would cross a boundary. They called the MDU for advice.

MDU advice

Doctors are in a position of power and many patients are vulnerable in one way or another. And even when there is no obvious vulnerability, it's clear from the GMC's guidance that it's never appropriate for a doctor to pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship with a current patient.

Even if the attraction is mutual between a doctor and a patient or their relative, the GMC still expects the doctor to exercise appropriate self-restraint. You should be polite and considerate, and try to re-establish a professional boundary. If that's not possible, you might have to end the professional relationship.

Document any advances made by a patient to avoid any criticism if you're questioned about it in future (for example, if the patient mentions this in a complaint against you or the practice).

You might be tempted to end the professional relationship but it's usually inappropriate to start a relationship with an ex-patient, too. This will depend on when you treated them, their vulnerability, and the nature of the treatment. Remember, if the relationship fails, the possible impact on your career could be detrimental. There have been instances of disgruntled ex-partners who claim the doctors abused their position of trust to start the relationship.

If considering a relationship with a former patient, make sure you've considered all these factors and that you're sure that any action couldn't be misconstrued as taking advantage of your position of trust and responsibility, or as exploiting vulnerable individuals. It's always a good idea to seek advice, either from your educational supervisor, a senior colleague or the MDU.

In addition, remember that it's inappropriate to use contact details from records to make personal contact with a patient (or relative) unless the contact is necessary for their clinical care. Doctors have been criticised by the GMC for doing this. You should also not use social media to contact them, even if their profile is public, and especially if the reason you'd met was professional.

Similarly, if a patient contacts you through social media, the GMC makes it clear that you should decline their offer and maintain a professional boundary.

The MDU adviser explained the guidance and the foundation doctor told their supervisor, recorded this interaction with the patient and told the patient that it would not be appropriate for them to see each other – and definitely not to go for that drink.

This is a fictionalised case compiled from actual MDU case files.

This page was correct at publication on 30/01/2024. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Dr Catherine Wills

by Dr Catherine Wills Medico-legal adviser


Catherine joined the MDU in 2004 and is deputy head of the advisory department. Previously, Catherine was a hospital consultant in general medicine, diabetes and endocrinology.