Maintaining professional relationships with patients

The doctor-patient relationship can sometimes expose medical professionals to unwanted attention from their patients.

  • Unwanted attention can range from phone calls, messages, or social media contact, to stalking, verbal and physical abuse, and occasionally serious acts such as assault.
  • Although harassment of doctors is a rare occurrence, it is nonetheless distressing for those who have to deal with it.
  • Be mindful of your interactions with patients, particularly outside of the professional environment and if they send you friend requests on social media.
  • If you find yourself dealing with unwanted attention from a patient, deal with it quickly and discuss with appropriate colleague or your defence organisation, and keep a record of any interactions that take place.

What to do if a patient inappropriately contacts you

Doctors are much more accessible to their patients now with communication channels such as emails and messaging services being used to contact patients.

While these contact details may be given to patients for solely professional reasons, it does give patients a way of contacting doctors inappropriately if they're so inclined.

  • If you're contacted by a patient for personal, not professional reasons, and it's safe to do so, let the patient know their contact isn't appropriate and redirect them if they have any clinical concerns. Raise that you've been personally contacted by a patient with the appropriate person in your organisation so that it can be dealt with as necessary. They should advise the patient that their contact is not appropriate. If necessary, your professional relationship with the patient may need to end and a colleague will need to take over their care.

Another kind of unwanted attention, which could result in harassment, may come from patients who bear a grudge against a doctor for whatever reason. This could be because they feel they haven’t been provided with the right treatment or because they have made a complaint about the doctor.

At its very worst, such harassment can come not only from the patient themselves but also from the patient's family members and friends.

Maintaining boundaries when using social media

Social media makes doctors more accessible than ever and can be another route for unwanted attention, particularly if they are public, rather than private, accounts.

As such, be mindful when accepting friend requests and of what you post. Check your privacy settings to make sure personal posts can’t easily be seen by those you’d prefer not to know about your private life.

Not only this, but the GMC also highlights potential problems that could arise if your use of social media is inappropriate and could impact on the trust patients and society have in the medical profession.

Guidance from Health Education England (HEE) also acknowledges that doctors might find themselves inadvertently and unknowingly communicating with patients on dating apps, which may require special consideration. Again, doctors need to be mindful of their GMC obligations where patients are concerned.

It’s important to maintain professional boundaries and ensure patients aren’t given the impression that your relationship with them can be any more than professional. The GMC says you must not pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship with a current patient.

If you find yourself in a position where you are considering a relationship with a former patient, you need to consider the length of time since the professional relationship ended and the nature of that relationship. This is particularly important if the patient was, or still is, vulnerable.

Other factors include whether you will be caring for other members of the patient’s family, whether your previous relationship with them could be seen to have influenced their actions or decisions, and whether you might be seen to be abusing your professional position ('Maintaining personal and professional boundaries' [2024]).

The government on harassment and stalking

The government takes violence against healthcare professionals very seriously and the NHS takes a zero-tolerance approach. Your NHS workplace is likely to have a policy in place, so make sure you are familiar with it.

Harassment became a criminal offence following the introduction of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and stalking became a specific offence when this was amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

Stalking protection orders are civil orders that can be used by police to intervene early to protect victims of stalking.

Keep a record of details

In conclusion, if you are concerned about your position with regards to a patient’s behaviour towards you it is important to deal with this quickly before matters get out of hand.

Discuss this with an appropriate colleague and your defence organisation and keep a log of any concerns or interactions including the place, date and time and any witnesses that were present.

Read our guide on maintaining patient boundaries.

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.


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