The Medical Defence Union (MDU) said in the last five years it received 100 reports from doctors of patients using Facebook, Twitter or text messages to make amorous advances.
GPs are among the doctors most commonly contacted by patients in this way, it said. Out of the 100 cases reported, 72 were from GPs.
In one case seen by the MDU, a GP received repeated friend requests on Facebook from a patient, who also sent letters and gifts. The patient later made a complaint to the GMC, claiming that she and the doctor had had a sexual relationship. She eventually admitted that she had fabricated the allegations.
In order to avoid future contacts from patients, GPs may have to change mobile numbers or email addresses and activate privacy settings on social networks, the MDU said.
MDU medico-legal adviser and former GP Dr Claire Macaulay said: ‘The trend towards patients making unsolicited advances to their doctor is not a new one.
‘But while in the past patients were likely to put pen to paper when making such approaches, patients are now using digital means. While this is hardly surprising, given the increasing use of electronic media, our members report that being bombarded with messages to their mobiles, or email, Twitter or Facebook accounts can, in some ways, be even more intrusive than receiving a stream of written letters.
‘Care and diplomacy are needed by the doctor, who should gently but firmly ask the patient to stop. Often a clear, written explanation that the doctor-patient relationship is a professional one and therefore personal intimacy is not possible is enough to bring matters to a close at an early stage.'
MDU tips on dealing with amorous patients:
- Inform the patient politely but firmly that it is impossible for anything other than a purely professional relationship to exist between you and that their actions have overstepped the acceptable boundaries of the doctor/patient relationship.
- Consider transferring the patient’s care to a colleague.
- Keep a log of all calls and contacts.
- Exercise caution before accepting gifts, as acceptance can be misconstrued.
- Use privacy settings on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter
- Consider withholding your mobile number if you use it to contact patients.
- Don’t reply to Facebook messages from patients.
- Contact the MDU for advice as soon as you become aware of any potential difficulties with a patient.