With Valentine’s Day rapidly approaching, Debbie Herbst advises what to do if you become the focus of a patient’s affections.

With the shops full of cards, flowers and heart balloons, there is no escaping the fact that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.

Whether you embrace the prospect or simply want to hide until 14 February is over, the dental surgery is usually regarded as a romance-free-zone. And yet, there are cases where patients have become attracted to their dentist and felt driven to act on their feelings. This can be a really tricky situation to deal with and the DDU’s advice is to nip any unwanted attention in the bud at the earliest opportunity.

The GDC says: ‘You must maintain appropriate boundaries in the relationships you have with patients’ and ‘must not take advantage of your position as a dental professional’.

Bear in mind that patients put their trust in you as their dentist – you have the knowledge and skills to help them maintain their oral health – so it’s important to establish and maintain appropriate professional boundaries at all times.

In the DDU’s experience, dentists recognise the ethical difficulties of mixing the personal and professional. However, we still receive calls from members who are unsure how to deal with a patient who has developed amorous feelings.

How can you avoid this happening to you and if it does, how should you deal with it? The DDU’s tips below might help.

Maintain clear, professional boundaries

The best way to avoid becoming the object of a patient’s affections is to make sure you maintain clear, professional boundaries with all of your patients and be wary of sharing too much information about your personal life.

You may see it as you are just making small talk when you tell a patient where you are off to on holiday, but they may see this as the start of a friendship.

Avoid adding patients as friends on Facebook

Social media has blurred the boundaries between the professional and the personal, which can get dental professionals into tricky situations. For example, you may have a personal Facebook account, which you also use to keep up to date on the latest dental news, as well as to keep in touch with your friends and family. But you should avoid adding patients as Facebook friends.

If you wish to communicate professional information to your patients via social media, such as practice opening hours, reviews and treatment options, consider setting up a Facebook page or Twitter account specifically for your practice.

Dealing with inappropriate behaviour

If a patient behaves inappropriately, by sending you a Valentine’s Day card or gift, for example, or by making suggestive comments or asking you on a date, it is important not to ignore the situation as they may not realise that you object.

Instead, politely but firmly ask them to stop, making it clear that the relationship is strictly professional. It is important to always keep a record of this discussion.

Although the patient may be embarrassed about the situation, in the majority of cases they will understand and not contact you in anything other than a professional capacity again.

Don’t deal with it alone

It is important not to deal with these situations alone. You may wish to share the problem with your colleagues, who could be a valuable source of support. If you feel uncomfortable continuing to see the patient, consider asking a colleague to see the patient instead. Bear in mind, however, that you may still need to treat the patient if an emergency arises.

If you ever feel your safety or that of others is at risk then consider involving the police in the matter. If this becomes necessary, be mindful of confidentiality and make sure you do not divulge any confidential clinical information without the patient’s consent, unless this would be justifiable in the public interest.

Your dental defence organisation can guide you through your options and advise you on how to deal with the situation you face. The DDU’s advice on amorous advances from patients can be summarised as:

  • Avoid sharing personal information during consultations or online
  • Avoid accepting friendship requests from patients on Facebook
  • If a patient makes amorous advances, log all contact with them, including inappropriate behaviour and any gifts received
  • Tell the patient politely but firmly that their advances are unwelcome and that you are unable to accept any gifts or pursue any kind of personal relationship with them
  • Never be left alone with an amorous patient. Ensure there is another member of staff with you throughout the time you are with the patient
  • Seek support from colleagues, while always respecting patient confidentiality
  • Consider asking whether a practice colleague can take over an amorous patient’s care. However, bear in mind you may still be obliged to treat the patient in an emergency
  • If you feel that your safety or that of others may be threatened by a patient’s behaviour, you might decide to involve the police. However, you should not divulge any confidential clinical details about the patient without the patient’s consent, unless this would be justifiable in the public interest.

For more information visit www.theddu.com or call 0800 374626.