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Facing Personal and Professional Threats as a Physician

Facing Personal and Professional Threats as a Physician

Sometimes the personal lives of physicians can spiral out of control and can affect not only the physician but his colleagues and medical practice. A common example is when a physician's domestic relationship falls apart and the physician's partner engages in a campaign to harass and intimidate not only the physician but other members of the practice as well. This can be through texts, voicemails, and e-mails, as well as posts on Facebook, Yelp, and other public websites. I've had situations where the harassing party has gone so far as to post the physician's e-mail and personal telephone number on Craigslist seeking "sexual favors."  As you might imagine, the fallout can be extreme.

Threats from a Partner

The strife between a physician and their partner can also impact the medical practice, as well as the relationship of the physician with her partners. The harasser will use every means possible, including fabricating allegations of a relationship between the physician and another practice colleague, in order to control and manipulate.  It is essential not only that the physician hire legal counsel, but for the practice to have its own counsel to protect it, its physicians, and the reputation of everyone at the practice. Additionally, physicians should be aware that "spy" software is easy to use and install on laptops and smartphones and can allow access to all communications in which a physician engages, as well as posing a HIPAA risk.  In cases involving domestic partners, this is often a common issue and can make it hard for the physician to obtain help or escape a difficult situation.

Sometimes threats from a domestic partner can be frightening and, even if not threatening personal harm, can certainly threaten professional harm. I have been involved in cases where a domestic partner has called licensing and enforcement agencies to make allegations against a physician (and colleagues). These types of false reports can have a long-term impact on a physician's reputation and licensing, and can be hard to repair. Getting the attention of the appropriate authorities to thoroughly explain the situation can be frustrating. The system is designed for those making allegations, not the innocent accused.

Threats from a Patient, Patient's Family, or Other Party

Sometimes, the harassing party is not known to the physician. I have clients who receive letters or threats from those they do not remember meeting or who may have been a family member of a patient. One physician received a series of love letters indicating the physician was being watched, while waiting for a bus to work or even while at the park with his family. While potentially harmless, this is disturbing correspondence to receive for anyone and it's not always obvious how one should react? Should a lawyer be immediately contacted? Should the letters be ignored? At what point should the physician's partners and/or the practice be told? There is often no clear roadmap on these issues.

When a physician or their staff becomes the target of an angry patient or family member, it can be frightening for all involved. While very rarely do we see the case of a physician being murdered (such as what happened at Brigham and Women's Hospital in January 2015), physicians can become the target of harassment by patients and family members for a variety of reasons. Whether this involves yelling or threats via e-mail or telephone, a firm and appropriate response is needed. Physicians should definitely call the police when they feel threatened. It is also important when engaging with patients' family members that a physician remember their duty is to the patient first and foremost, and that revealing information covered by HIPAA is never appropriate simply because somebody is a family member, even an angry one.

There are many types of situations where a physician can be threatened, both within and outside the medical practice. The danger can be from those close to the physician or those with whom they come into contact in their professional role. Physicians must be vigilant of all potential threats and communicate concerns to colleagues and legal counsel before it is too late. Although not all concerns turn into viable threats, you can never be too cautious in protecting yourself, your family, your medical practice, and your reputation.

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