Dealing with Valentine's Day advances

How to deal with inappropriate advances from patients and avoid misunderstandings.

  • Avoid sharing personal information with your patients.
  • Keep a record of any discussions with patients - including inappropriate advances.

You probably wouldn't associate passionate feelings with your medical practice. But sometimes, patients can misinterpret their doctor's professional behaviour and try to turn a purely professional relationship into a romantic one.

It might be a simple case of miscommunication or a Valentine's Day advance, but whatever the reason, it may prompt someone with amorous feelings to make an approach. How can you avoid this happening to you and if it does, how should you deal with it?

Maintain clear, professional boundaries

The best way to avoid becoming the object of a patient's affections is to make sure you maintain clear, professional boundaries with all of your patients and avoid sharing too much information about your personal life.

You may see it as just making small talk when you tell a patient where you are off to on holiday, but they may see this as the start of a friendship.

Don't blur boundaries on social media

Social media can blur the boundaries between the professional and the personal, leading to tricky situations for doctors. You may have personal social media accounts that you use to keep up to date on the latest medical news, as well as keep in touch with friends and family. But you should never add a patient as friend.

If you do want to communicate information about your practice to patients via social media, consider setting up a specific page or account specifically for your practice.

If you have a mutual attraction with a 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.

The GMC's guidance on maintaining professional boundaries advises that it is not ethical to pursue a "sexual or improper emotional relationship" with a current patient or with someone who is close to them, such as a family member.

Personal relationships with former patients may also be inappropriate depending on factors such as the length of time since the professional relationship ended, the vulnerability of the former patient, whether you could be seen to be abusing your professional position and whether you care for family members.

Dealing with inappropriate behaviour

If a patient behaves inappropriately, by (for example) sending you a Valentine's Day card or gift, or asking you on a date, it's important not to ignore the situation as they may not realise that you object.

Instead, politely but firmly ask them to stop, making it clear that the relationship is strictly professional. Always keep a record of this discussion.

Let your colleagues know what's happening. If you do not feel safe or comfortable to have contact with the patient, ask your colleagues for support. A more senior doctor or manager could contact the patient on behalf of the organisation to let the patient know that your relationship with them is strictly professional.

Although the patient may be embarrassed about the situation, most patients will understand and not contact you in anything other than a professional capacity again.

You might need to consider other measures such as using chaperone or asking a colleague to take over the patient's care, see our separate guidance on maintaining patient boundaries

If a patient behaves in a sexual way towards you, you should report the incident in line with workplace policies and seek support if you need it.

You may need to end your professional relationship with a patient if they have acted in a sexual way towards you so follow GMC guidance on how to do that ethically.

If you ever feel your safety or that of others is at risk then consider involving the police. If this is necessary, be mindful of confidentiality and make sure you do not divulge any confidential clinical information without the patient's consent, unless this would be justifiable in the public interest.

You can also contact us at any time. You certainly won't be the first to contact us about this issue and we can guide you through your options and advise you on how to deal with the situation.

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.