Is it OK for GP’s to have sex with their patients?

For anyone interested in the ethics of doctor-patient sex and the relationship between ethics and law, the recent 5-1 decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Thierfelder v Wolfert makes fascinating reading. (If the details interest you, make sure to read Justice Todd’s dissent – in my view she got the issue right!)

In 1996 David and Joanne Thierfelder became patients of Dr. Irwin Wolfert, a family physician. He treated them both for conditions that included low libido. In 2002 Ms. Thierfelder told Dr. Wolfert that he had “cured” her problems and was her “hero.” They began a sexual relationship that lasted for a year. She became more anxious and depressed and finally ended the relationship in January 2003. She told her husband about the affair two months later, and together they brought malpractice action against Dr. Wolfert.

Dr. Wolfert argued that as a general practitioner he should not be held to the same standard as psychiatrists, for whom a clear duty not to have sexual involvement with patients had been recognized. The court accepted this view on the basis that psychiatrists are trained to recognize and deal with “transference” (reacting to current relationships, like Ms. Thierfelder’s with Dr. Wolfert, in terms of past relationships). GPs, the court concluded, should not be held to the same duty of care, since they are not trained to do treatment based on dealing with transference. If they were held to this standard it would discourage them from providing mental health counseling to their patients, which would be a bad societal outcome.

The majority made clear that the fact that Dr. Wolfert’s actions were seen as unethical within the medical profession did not mean that he had violated legally enforceable duty. The Pennsylvania Board of Medicine had in fact sanctioned Dr. Wolfert before the Supreme Court heard the case. (It ordered a three year suspension of his license, but stayed the suspension under terms that included professional development activities, 550 hours of community service, and a fine.)

The majority cited Korper v Weinstein, a case in my home state of Massachusetts. Dr. Weinstein had done a breast biopsy on Ms. Korper at the Harvard University Health Service. (It was benign.) After completing her followup care, the two had lunch together, and a consensual sexual relationship ensued. Dr. Weinstein was not involved in a further treatment relationship. When he ended the relationship two years later she brought action against him. The court opined:

Any trust and confidence she placed in the defendant as a person…even augmented by circumstances that made her emotionally dependent on him, did not create a fiduciary duty in the defendant to prevent the personal relationship that developed consensually between them, especially where he terminated the physician-patient relationship as soon as the personal relationship began.

In her dissent, Dr. Todd concluded that (a) general practitioners frequently provide mental health services and are allowed to do so by their licenses and (b) sexual relations with patients is explicitly prohibited by the medical community, with (c) the result that she had “no hesitation in concluding that general practice physicians who provide mental health disorders to patients have a duty to abstain from sexual relations with their patients…and that these physicians may be potentially liable in professional negligence actions for any harm to their patients – patients they pledged to take no action to harm – as a result of engaging in such conduct” (page 18 in the dissent).

I believe Dr. Todd, though outnumbered 5 to 1, was correct. It’s widely known that sexual relationships with patients being treated for mental health conditions have high potential for causing harm. Treating mental health conditions is within the purview of general practitioners. The ethical standards of the profession are well-known to prohibit sexual relationships with current patients. It’s hard to see why the allegation of malpractice should not have been judged on the basis of its facts, rather than being prevented from coming to trial. The facts would have shown that Dr. Wolfert breached a duty. But it would have to be further shown that this had directly led to damage to Ms. Thierfelder.

The majority did not argue that it’s ethically acceptable for general practitioners to have a sexual relationship with patients they are treating for mental health conditions. But in my view their conclusion that seeing a duty not to do so sets too high a standard is insulting to GPs. Being sued for malpractice is every physician’s nightmare, but implying that GPs don’t have enough understanding of human psychology and the treatment process to know that sexual relations and mental health treatment don’t go together is demeaning to their competence and maturity.