Articles and Case Studies

Suspension for sexual misconduct

12 Jun 2019

Dr Sara Bird

by Dr Sara Bird

doctor-patient relationship

A recent Tribunal decision1 highlighted the importance of maintaining professional boundaries and the risks of engaging with current or former patients via social media.

Case study

The GP, who was first registered in 2002, saw a patient, Ms YN, for a mole check in January 2014. From then until 23 June 2015, the patient saw the GP in consultation on 16 occasions.

Late June 2015: The GP and YN became friends on Facebook. In early October 2015, YN sent a Facebook message to the GP saying she had personal feelings for him and asked to meet at a local cafe. A week later they met at the cafe and, over the next month, exchanged text messages and met in person.

Mid-November & early December 2015: On two occasions, the GP and YN engaged in sexual activity at a motel.

Late January to September 2016: They continued to contact each other through Facebook messenger service and text messages.

Mid-April 2016: YN attended her local ED. While she was waiting to be seen, she exchanged text messages with the GP who then went to the ED to wait with her until she was seen. The next day, the GP contacted a colleague at his clinic and asked him to write a pathology request for YN. One week later, the GP sent a message to YN saying the test results were normal and she did not have glandular fever.

26 April 2016: YN sent an email to the GP explaining that she had consulted one of his GP colleagues about extreme stress. During the consultation, they had discussed her sexual abuse history, her marriage breakdown, and her more recent sexual activities. YN had told the GP’s colleague about their relationship, saying she had initiated it and that the relationship had not been conducted while she was a patient. The colleague had strongly advised YN to notify AHPRA and told her he was obliged, under mandatory reporting obligations, to notify AHPRA about the GP’s conduct.

On hearing this, the GP notified AHPRA that he had acted in an unprofessional way with YN. The GP’s colleague notified AHPRA the following day. YN never made a notification to AHPRA.

Medico-legal issues

On 3 December 2018, the Tribunal found the GP guilty of professional misconduct for transgressing professional and sexual boundaries with a current or former patient. The GP was reprimanded and had his medical registration suspended for two months. A condition was placed on his registration that he should complete an education course on the identification and maintenance of professional boundaries and ethical decision- making.

The Tribunal found that when the sexual relationship between the GP and YN ended, a substantive doctor–patient relationship was re-established – if not when he sat with her in the ED, then when he once again became involved in her treatment in providing blood test results to her.

The Tribunal noted:

There is every risk that YN’s attraction [to the GP] was grounded in the doctor–patient relationship, perhaps with charisma attaching to the doctor in the eyes of YN … the confusion of roles between doctor–patient and a relationship between two consenting adults is what should have been avoided in the first place.

The GP’s lawyer had submitted there was no need to suspend his registration because he was remorseful, had learned from the experience and the risk, if any, of him repeating such conduct was remote.

While the Medical Board of Australia had sought a nine-month suspension, the Tribunal ultimately imposed a two-month suspension, stating it was important to send: the strong message to the profession of the severe consequences of entering into non- clinical relationships with patients, even where on one view, perhaps the doctor’s view, the doctor–patient relationship had ended.

It’s never appropriate for a doctor to engage in a sexual relationship with a patient. And it may be unethical and unprofessional for a doctor to have a sexual relationship with a former patient.

More resources icon 

More resources

Medical Board of Australia: Social media policy

Medical Board of Australia: Sexual boundaries in the doctor–patient relationship

Dr Sara Bird
Executive Manager, Professional Services
MDA National

Communication with Patients, Regulation and Legislation, Anaesthesia, Dermatology, Emergency Medicine, General Practice, Intensive Care Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Ophthalmology, Pathology, Practice Manager Or Owner, Psychiatry, Radiology, Sports Medicine, Surgery, Physician, Geriatric Medicine, Cardiology, Plastic And Reconstructive Surgery, Radiation Oncology, Paediatrics, Independent Medical Assessor - IME


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