Treating Family Members – What Should Health Professionals Understand

Treating Family Members – What Should Health Professionals Understand


Toronto health lawyer, Elyse Sunshine, says health professionals have to be careful when treating their own family members. The obvious question is, careful of what?

[Health professionals must be] Careful of impaired judgement decisions. Obviously when we are involved with our own loved ones, our judgement may not be the same as when we are treating patients with whom we do not have a personal relationship.

I thought doctors couldn’t treat family members?

It is certainly not recommended. In the case of ongoing care it is absolutely prohibited, particularly when we are talking about a spouse. But episodic, urgent or emergent care is permissible as you can imagine if a loved one woke up in the middle of the night and something was wrong, we wouldn’t want to prevent a physician from attending to that type of situation.

What is it that they are really prohibited from doing?

In the case particularly of spouses, you cannot have sex with a patient. You have this quandary if you were treating your spouse on an ongoing basis, then you would technically be having sex with a patient and that is the kind of conduct for which a physician or any health professional could lose their certificate of registration.

What are the rules for a romantic relationship with a doctor and then the relationship ended?

It depends on the nature of the care that was provided. Some health professionals in each regulatory College has its own different policy or guideline with respect to this or view of this. We can have what is called a “cooling off” period. Where an appropriate level of time that either the health care relationship could commence or a romantic relationship could commence. But for some types of health professionals, for example, psychiatrists being one of them, it is viewed as never being appropriate to either treat a former partner (changed from ‘patient’) or to enter into a relationship with someone who used to be your patient.

If your ex is a trauma surgeon, for example, and you’ve been in an accident they can treat you.

That’s right. If you were brought to the hospital on an emergency basis and there was no other care provider who could be brought in, your life is the paramount situation and that physician would be required, indeed, to attend to you.

What about other family members?

[It is] a bit different with other family members. Again, we do not get into the situation of having sex with a patient, but we are dealing with issues of boundaries, making potential decisions where our judgement is influenced by the nature of that personal relationship. It is certainly not encouraged and we could be getting into boundary violations or, in terms of issues of standard of care.

This applies not just to doctors, right?

That’s right. It is a consideration that applies to any regulated health professional. Also in fact to non-regulated health professionals, it is something to be considered while they do not have the legislative prohibition, there have been cases where individuals have sued health professionals with whom they have had a relationship both in a treating and sexual relationship.

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