Practice Dilemma: Dealing with the possibility of theft within the practice

You suspect a patient has stolen your handbag. What should you do?

The dilemma

During a busy morning while I was in the middle of a consultation with a new patient, I was asked by one of the nurses to see one of her patients who was complaining of shortness of breath.

Once the emergency was over I returned to my room and continued my own consultation. Later in the day I reached for a tissue from my handbag to find my bag gone from under the desk where I always put it. I searched the room but the bag was nowhere to be found. I know who had been in my room during the time my handbag went missing, but what can I do?

A GP’s view

Dr Louise Warburton is a GP in Ironbridge, Telford

I am always careful to hide my handbag in my consulting room and when I work in the local hospital, but I am always aware that while I am out of the room,  someone could search the cupboards and find it.

In this case you should inform the practice manager. A member of staff may have moved the handbag when seeing it unattended. You should also make sure that you have not moved the bag and forgotten that you had moved it.

If the bag is genuinely missing the practice manager should inform all members of the practice of the missing bag in the unlikely event that a member of staff has stolen it and is thinking of putting the handbag back, and then contact the police. 

Suspicions may lie with the new patient who was in the room while you were away, and it may be worth contacting the practice where this patient was previously registered.

The patient may have a past history of theft and even been removed from the list for similar offences.

However, it could have been any one of the subsequent patients whom you saw that morning, or a patient passing the open door and seeing the handbag unattended.

It may be worth questioning patients in the waiting room at the time of the incident in case they had witnessed any suspicious behaviour.

Always hide personal belongings and if possible lock them safely in a part of the practice where patients have no access.

A patient’s view

Ailsa Donnelly, Patient Partnership Group

It is unclear whether you have already contacted the police. If not, then for insurance purposes you must do so soon.

You must remember, however, that suspicion, no matter how strong, is not proof. Check everywhere in the practice or at home where the bag could have been left — when did you last know you had it?

Could it have been lost or stolen earlier? Did you leave the room, however briefly, at any other time during surgery?  Could a patient’s companion have removed it while you were examining a patient?  Who else has access to the room, for example, a new staff member?

Contacting the practice that previously treated the new patient is an obvious step.

Apart from opportunity, are there any specific grounds for suspecting this new patient, for example kleptomania?

You could also write to all the patients you saw that morning explaining in a non-threatening manner that your handbag has been lost and ask if they remember seeing it or if they had perhaps picked it up by mistake.

It could be included in the letter that if the handbag cannot be found the police will have to be involved.

A medico-legal view

Dr Richard Dempster is medico-legal adviser, Medical Protection Society

The problem of personal effects going missing from a doctor’s consulting room is unfortunately quite common.

As you indicate, you are aware of patients who have consulted with you in the surgery during the time the bag went missing.

The circumstances described suggest that the most likely time for your handbag to have gone missing was when you left a new patient in the consulting room to provide an opinion on one of the nurse’s patients at her request.

It is of interest that the patient you suspect was unknown to you previously, since one hopes it is less likely that someone with whom you have built up a relationship of trust will steal from you. 

Unfortunately, your options are limited by your legal and ethical duty of confidence to your patients.

The theft of a handbag would not fulfil the criteria in the GMC guidance on breaching confidentiality, and thus disclosing patients’ details to the police is unlikely to be justified.

It is also questionable what benefit it would bring to retrieving your bag.

You cannot be certain who actually took your bag. Challenging the patients directly yourself is unlikely to produce any positive results.

It may also offend and potentially alienate your patients.

My advice would be to learn from this unfortunate episode and to ensure that you do not leave patients alone in the consulting room if at all possible.

Always take steps to ensure that items such as personal effects and prescription pads are locked away to prevent opportunist thieves.

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