Considering dating a patient? Refer first

By TDIC Risk Management Staff

There is considerable information about the ethical implications and risks of dentists dating a patient of record, but the fact remains that dentists encounter a variety of people in daily practice and may find themselves attracted to a patient. Conversely, a dentist discovers a patient is attracted to him or her.

In California, Business and Professions Code 726 which applies to all licensed dental professionals states in part, "The commission of any act of sexual abuse, misconduct or relations with a patient, client or customer constitutes unprofessional conduct and grounds for disciplinary action ..." A dental professional who has a sexual relationship with a patient is in violation of the Dental Practice Act.

If an attraction develops, consider ahead of time how this could become an awkward situation in the future. The Dentists Insurance Company strongly advises you not to act on that unless you first refer the patient to another dentist for dental care before beginning a personal relationship.

"Romantic chemistry happens," said a TDIC analyst who fields calls for the Risk Management Advice Line. "But there are consequences involved with dating a patient." These range from violating the Dental Practice Act to damaging your professional reputation.

For these and other reasons, TDIC recommends a written office policy against dating patients. "The policy should be applied universally," said analyst Taiba Solaiman. "The doctor sets the example for the office." If a doctor dates a patient, it sends a message to the rest of the staff that it is acceptable behavior.

A dentist who is serious about dating a patient should refer the patient to another dental provider. If a staff member wishes to date a patient, the best practice is the same: the patient must seek dental care from another office. This can prevent a number of potential problems. There could be concerns surrounding forgiving a balance or unauthorized credit placed on a patient's account. If the relationship does not work out, the patient may voice concerns about unauthorized access to his or her private health information.

The ethical considerations of personal relationships with patients are addressed in the ADA Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct, which states, "Dentists should avoid interpersonal relationships that could impair their professional judgment or risk the possibility of exploiting the confidence placed in them by a patient." This section is under the Principle of Nonmaleficence ("do no harm").

Patients ideally trust and respect their dentist and reveal confidential information with the expectation that it will be used only in their best interest. This dynamic creates a delicate balance between dentists and patients that must not be exploited.

Combining professional and personal relationships is never without complications. Protect your role as a health care professional. TDIC advises a simple, "Thank you, no" to safeguard your practice and professional reputation.

The Dentists Insurance Company offers policyholders a free advice line at 800.733.0634 for assistance with questions or concerns about potential liability. TDIC risk management analysts will work with policyholders to develop a solution.