MDU warns doctors to protect their online privacy

Author: Ingrid Torjesen

The Medical Defence Union (MDU) has warned healthcare staff to consider whether they are revealing too much about themselves online in light of a number of cases in which infatuated patients have been able to discover medical professionals’ personal details.

A recent Medscape survey of 1,378 hospital doctors and GPs in the UK found that 17% of respondents have suffered sexual harassment by a patient, and the MDU supports around 20 to 30 doctors and nurses each year whose patients have overstepped professional boundaries by acting on their romantic feelings.

Incidents reported by MDU members range from patients asking the doctor out for a drink to more persistent behaviour such as sending inappropriate cards and gifts, attempting to embrace the doctor or contacting them via social media, email, text message or messaging app. In some cases, the patient researched the doctor or nurse and sometimes their family and friends using information found online.

Dr Ellie Mein, MDU medico-legal adviser, said: “Medical professionals can be understandably very distressed by unwanted advances from patients. This is especially the case when contact is made via a personal mobile, email address or social media account as those targeted can feel their privacy has been breached.

“With personal information being more easily accessible, we are advising our members to consider protecting their privacy by reviewing online data. Consider whether home addresses, personal emails and details of family members are accessible including on business and company websites and in published research papers. It’s also important to review social media security settings.”

Dealing with a patient who wants a romantic relationship can be hugely difficult and distressing for those involved. If it happens doctors should politely but firmly decline a patient’s advance and explain the importance of maintaining a professional boundary, the MDU advises. By doing this the professional doctor/patient relationship can sometimes be restored.