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Doctors Should Avoid Flirty Patients On Facebook

December 2, 2009

Physicians should not respond to amorous advances from patients on social networking sites like Facebook, according to the Medical Defense Union (MDU), a British association that provides legal advice and support to doctors, Reuters reported.

The MDU, which calls itself the UK’s leading medical defense organization, said it is aware of a number of cases where patients have attempted to proposition doctors by sending them an unsolicited message on Facebook or similar sites.

“Responding to patients in this way may be seen as overstepping the professional boundary of the doctor/patient relationship,” the MDU said in a statement.

MDU medico-legal adviser Dr. Emma Cuzner said the pitfalls posed to doctors using social networking sites by inadvertently breaching confidentiality or posting unprofessional content, such as photos, have been well documented.

However, doctors may be less prepared for patients using sites like Facebook to ask them out on a date, she said.

She added that some doctors have told the MDU they feel it would be rude not to reply, if only to politely refuse, but given that this is not a professional route of communication, any correspondence of this sort would clearly stray outside the doctor/patient relationship.

One case cited by the MDU involved a female general practitioner (GP) who was asked out for a drink by a patient as she left her surgery. After she declined the offer, the patient started pestering the doctor via Facebook and sent her a bunch of her favorite flowers, lilies, which he had ascertained from her freely available Facebook page.

The GP was assisted by the MDU, which helped her curb the patient’s advances, and also suggested she considered employing some of the security and privacy settings on the site.

Doctors should be wary about the issues surrounding the use, or absence of chaperones, for intimate examinations, the MDU said.

MDU clinical risk manager Karen Roberts was involved in a five-year study that reviewed claims and complaints about women’s health made against GPs.

Throughout the five-year study, 48 complaints about the use, or more usually the absence, of a chaperone for an intimate examination were cited.

Many of the complainants alleged an inappropriate examination had taken place or that no chaperone was offered.  However, six patients complained about the presence of a chaperone or that the doctor would not perform the examination without one.

The MDU advises doctors that the key to avoiding such complaints often include offering a chaperone for intimate examinations and clear communication with the patient.

The MDU said doctors are advised to explain the reason for an examination and what it will involve and to ensure the patient is given privacy to undress and not to make personal comments during the examination.

“Doctors must understand that when using these sites, their conduct must remain within the boundaries of the doctor-patient partnership,” said a GMC spokeswoman.

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