The dicey proposition of dating your patients

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published December 9, 2022

Key Takeaways

I never had a romantic relationship with a patient, nor do I know of anyone close to me who did. But it's not unheard of.

The interpersonal dynamics of practicing medicine can be similar to what's shown on TV medical dramas. Doctors date nurses (or each other), attending physicians date residents or medical school students, and residents date medical school students.

And yes, doctors do date their patients. But that doesn't mean this is ethical—or allowed.

Blurring the ethical lines

In my experience, most physicians believe that dating a current patient is unethical.

But what if you develop feelings for someone, only to discover they are a patient at your practice or hospital? Or what if you realize you treated them in the past? What if you work in a small town or remote area, and only one medical center provides care, making it likely you'll date someone you treated?

Such scenarios may make it difficult to clearly delineate between professional and social doctor-patient relationships. But one industry institution has a firm policy about this issue.

What does the AMA say?

The AMA Code of Medical Ethics is very clear in its stance on doctor-patient romantic relationships.

"Romantic or sexual interactions between physicians and patients that occur concurrently with the patient-physician relationship are unethical."


“Such interactions detract from the goals of the patient-physician relationship and may exploit the vulnerability of the patient, compromise the physician’s ability to make objective judgments about the patient’s health care, and ultimately be detrimental to the patient’s well-being,” the AMA policy states.

Suppose a physician and patient are mutually interested in pursuing a romantic relationship. In such cases, the physician must terminate the patient-physician relationship before starting a “dating, romantic, or sexual one with a patient,” according to the AMA Code.

Related: Real Talk: Breaking patient confidentiality

Possible legal problems

There could also be legal ramifications for healthcare professionals (HCPs) for having this kind of relationship with patients.

In 2021, a nurse at a medical center in Bellingham, WA, had her license suspended for at least 18 months after her employer discovered she was having a sexual relationship with a patient.

Hospitals, health clinics, and other medical institutions may have established rules concerning staff relationships with patients. Clinicians who are considering such relationships may want to check if their employer has such a policy in place.

If so, they may want to clear it with HR before further pursuing such a relationship. Patient privacy rules may also be worth checking on. Whatever the case, it's probably best to proceed with great caution.

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

Doctor-patient power struggle

One of the problematic—and potentially unethical—challenges of doctors dating patients is the power imbalance.

Patient empowerment is a major concern in modern medicine. As a result, it's becoming the standard to view patients as equal partners in the decision-making process.

However, the physician-patient relationship is inherently built on unequal power. The patient comes to a physician because they have something the patient needs, whether it’s knowledge, skills, or experiences.

Patient-doctor encounters put the patient in a vulnerable situation by placing the doctor in an authoritative stance in the context of patient care.

Related: Real Talk: Should doctors accept gifts from patients?

So, you want to date your patient?

As a physician, it is essential to recognize and respect the patient-physician relationship and understand that dating a current patient is off-limits.

But physicians have had dating relationships that turned into marriages with their patients. It’s vital to uphold ethical guidelines during these relationships.

For example, it’s unethical and inappropriate to contact a patient through social media or medical records. If patients contact you, avoid overstepping professional boundaries.

Related: Real Talk: When the patient is someone you love

Dating former patients

Regarding dating a former patient, there are some factors to consider, such as how long ago and for how long you were involved in their care, and whether they were vulnerable at the time—or now. If your professional interaction occurred a while ago and for a short time, it could be easier to justify a relationship.

It also depends on your specialty. If they were a pediatric or psychiatric patient, any relationship is more likely to be seen as an abuse of your position. It could also be seen as inappropriate if you still provide care to their family members.

If you're considering dating a former patient, ensure that there is no possibility of perceptions that you’re taking advantage of your position or of a vulnerable person.

Be aware of any potential future fallouts and how they can impact your career if the relationship doesn't work out. Disgruntled ex-partners could later claim to your state medical board or employer that you abused your power and trust as a physician to initiate the romantic relationship.

"Dating relationships with former patients will always come with added risk and criticism."

Kristen Fuller, MD

It may be wise to document any approach by a patient in the medical record and seek advice about dating a former or current patient from a trusted colleague before acting on your feelings.

Read Next: Real Talk: Sexual abuse of patients by doctors

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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