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7 December 2016

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New advice for practices on how to deal with ‘intrusive’ patients

Practice managers should make GPs aware of new guidance on dealing with inappropriate and intrusive behaviour from patients, especially online.

The Medical Defence Union (MDU) journal has published an article which warns that social media is making GPs more accessible than ever to patients who may seek unprofessional contact with them.

This can lead to the professional feeling uncomfortable or in some rare cases to stalking or harassment.

Seven-year stalking case

Earlier this year a Gloucester GP campaigned for an increase in sentencing for stalking offences after being stalked by a patient for seven years.

The article by legal adviser and former GP, Dr Beverley Ward, said: “With doctors more accessible than ever via social media, amorous approaches from patients can feel intrusive. If they are not nipped in the bud, or even unwittingly encouraged, things can get out of hand.”

Intrusive patient attention can include unwanted gifts, messages and friend requests on social media, as well as appearing at the GP’s work or home.

“The MDU has seen cases of doctors referred to the GMC by patients alleging a fabricated sexual relationship, or even complaints to the police of sexual assault,” the article said.

The MDU has helped around 100 members over the last five years with advice on how to deal with patients making “amorous advances”, a small number of which involved stalking behaviour which warranted police involvement.

“We can support doctors facing this difficult situation so it’s important to involve us as soon as becoming aware of a potential problem,” Dr Ward wrote.

What to do:

The MDU’s advice on dealing with amorous advances from patients includes informing management of the situation, and keeping a log of all inappropriate contacts from the patient.

If the GP continues to care for the patient “it is advisable to use a chaperone”, the MDU said. Accepting gifts from patients should also be “considered very carefully”.

GPs should not use personal email addresses or mobile numbers for work purposes, and should withhold their number if they must use a personal phone to contact a patient. They are also advised to review their social media privacy settings.

The union also advise involving the police if the health professional feels threatened or in danger.

By warning the patient that their behaviour is inappropriate it may be possible to get the doctor/patient relationship “back on a professional footing”. Failing that, the patient may need to be transferred to a different colleague or patient list, MDU said.