Real Talk: Is it ethical to date a physician colleague?

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published July 15, 2022

Key Takeaways

Working long hours in a hospital, taking care of acutely ill patients, and being surrounded by other like-minded physicians can result in close bonds with your work colleagues—and maybe even a romantic relationship.

A number of my fellow medical school classmates and residents formed long-lasting romantic relationships with their colleagues, and many of these turned into blissful marriages.

My experience

While I don't think I would be able to date someone I worked with daily in my specialty, I personally dated a resident in another specialty throughout my residency training. I felt that individuals outside of medicine had difficulty understanding my day-to-day life.

"I found catharsis in sharing my day with the resident I was dating—he was able to empathize with me and share similar experiences about his day. "

Kristen Fuller, MD

The upsides of dating someone in your field

When dating a physician colleague, it's easy to feel that you "get" each other.

You can have stimulating conversations about your day over dinner, and you can help each other work through the many challenges of being in medicine.

It's not to say that significant others who work outside of medicine cannot relate to our stories. But we may feel an especially close bond with a physician date or partner because we are "in the trenches" with them.

Potential challenges

Dating your physician colleague is not without possible pitfalls.

Work-life balance. You live and breathe medicine, and if you date someone who is also in medicine, you most likely will talk about your work 24/7—meaning at home, on vacation, and out on a date night. This can be quite stressful and potentially lead to burnout because instead of having healthy outlets away from medicine, your work-life equation now involves mostly work. 

Scheduling time off together. It may be challenging for you and your partner to schedule time together away from work, especially if you work in the same clinic or specialty. Realistically, one of you will most likely be at work while the other is off. 

Hierarchical roles. Dating your boss is usually frowned upon (and may be against the rules depending on where you work)—especially when potential pay raises and promotions are involved. Medicine is a hierarchy that includes medical students, residents, fellows, attendings, and department chairs. When you are in a relationship with "someone above or below you," it is imperative that you compartmentalize work and home to avoid conflicts of interest and outright conflict. 

Accusations from other colleagues. Medicine is a small world, meaning that your colleagues, especially in medical school and residency, talk about you whether you like it or not. Dating a physician colleague can spark accusations of distracted patient care and favoritism, gossip, and resentment from other colleagues, especially regarding new work opportunities.

The fallout after a breakup. Not all relationships are successful, and not all breakups are peaceful. The breakdown of relationships can lead to claims (false and true) of harassment and sexual harassment leading to disciplinary action or even termination. After a hurtful breakup, the workplace environment can be uncomfortable or, at worst, hostile—potentially prompting you or your ex-partner to resign.

Guidelines to follow

Although there are no formal rules set forth by the AMA about dating your fellow physician colleagues, as physicians, we are held to high standards of conduct—not only in our relationships with patients but with other healthcare professionals.

If you do choose to date your physician colleague, there are some fundamental and common-sense guidelines to follow.

First and foremost, make sure you know and abide by your employer's policies about workplace relationships.

Some employer policies require full disclosure of your relationship with your physician colleague. Others detail strategies to cover the potential for any actual or perceived conflicts of interest. They may have non-disclosure policies outlining steps and disciplinary action for staff who fail to disclose their relationship, especially when workplace relationships have the potential to generate conflicts of interest.

Other guidelines:

  • Keep your personal life out of your working life. At the office, always remain professional and remember that your patients are your priority.

  • Never share confidential work or patient information with your physician partner.

  • Avoid public displays of affection, which will only feed the gossip mill.

  • Avoid using work technology, such as emails and work phones, to communicate personal information.

At the end of the day, it's possible to have a gratifying and successful romantic partnership with a physician colleague that you have a close bond with. Just remember, it may be a bit more complicated than you think. 

Read Next: Real Talk: When women doctors are victims of sexual harassment

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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