Why Physicians Should Not Treat Their Practice Employees

July 20, 2012
Aubrey Westgate

If your staff members receive medical care at your practice, you may be setting yourself up for trouble.

If your staff members receive medical care at your practice, you may be setting yourself up for trouble.

While treating a staff member is not necessarily “incorrect” or “improper,” it does bring about a situation that’s “ripe for problems,” Denver-based attorney Steven Kabler told Physicians Practice. “The reality is a lot of practices do it,” he said. “I just think it’s a bad idea.”

One reason is that if a physician at your practice is also treating a staff member, he opens up two separate but connected relationships: the physician-patient relationship and the physician-employee relationship, said Kabler.

If you need to terminate the employee from his employment at some point, it raises questions whether continuing the physician-patient relationship is appropriate.

At the least, if the employee’s termination ends on a bad note, continuing that relationship will be awkward for the physician and other staff members who remain employed at the practice.

Along the same lines, treating a patient who is also an employee of the practice could create problems if you need to dismiss the patient. “What if you have a nurse that’s your employee that all of a sudden becomes a difficult patient?” said Kabler. “It makes it difficult to terminate them from either role.”

Practice Notes blogger and attorney Ericka L. Adler agrees that treating patients who are employed at your practice can complicate things. It’s best not to “blur the lines,” she told Physicians Practice.

Worse than employee termination or patient dismissal issues that could arise, however, are legal situations that could arise. For instance, if an employee-patient makes sexual harassment claim against his employer, who also happens to be his physician.

“You can’t terminate somebody when they make a claim because that’s retaliation, but it would be inappropriate for [the physician] to continue treating [the patient] I think, under those circumstances,” said Adler.

Still not convinced? There are several other problems that could arise if you treat practice staff members.

Worst of all, are circumstances that could cause your employee-patient’s health to suffer. Like if an employee-patient is embarrassed to disclose certain relevant health information to her physician. Or if a physician lacks objectivity when treating the patient due to the close working relationship he has with the patient.

Kabler acknowledges that there’s “absolutely no prohibition” against treating patients who are employed at your practice. But he said, “From a practicality standpoint, I think it makes sense not to.”

Do you think it’s appropriate to provide medical care to staff members at their place of employment? Why or why not?