I dated a patient

May 30, 2012
Renee Knight

Issue 8

Sometimes it’s worth the risk. That’s what a Wisconsin-based dentist decided when one of his patients asked him out. He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea at first, but after talking with her more and realizing how much they had in common, he changed his mind. “I thought about it for awhile before I responded to her interest in me,” he said. “I was hesitant because I was worried that if it didn’t work out, I would lose her as a patient and there could be some negative ramifications.”

Sometimes it’s worth the risk.

That’s what a Wisconsin-based dentist decided when one of his patients asked him out. He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea at first, but after talking with her more and realizing how much they had in common, he changed his mind.

“I thought about it for awhile before I responded to her interest in me,” he said. “I was hesitant because I was worried that if it didn’t work out, I would lose her as a patient and there could be some negative ramifications.”

They talked about what could go wrong and how they would handle it if it didn’t work out, and both decided they didn’t want to miss out on what had the potential to be a great relationship. And it seems they made the right decision; after two years, they’re still together.

Limoli, owner of the Reed Limoli Group. They’re exposed to a lot of people of the opposite sex during the work day, and it’s really not surprising that they may find themselves attracted to some of their patients.

If you’ve decided there’s a patient you’d like to ask out or if you’re thinking about responding to a patient who’s shown interest in you, there are a few things you should think about before you make that first date, from how well you know the person to what you’re going to tell your staff.

Think it through
Unfortunately, there are some people out there who want to take advantage of you. If one of your patients is starting to come on strong, you may be dealing with what Limoli describes as a “predatory patient.” These patients make a habit of dating their doctors for reasons other than finding love. If the patient showing interest is a friend of a friend or knows someone in your family, then you’re less likely to be a target and more likely to be someone that patient would like to get to know better.

But if you don’t have any connection with the patient other than the fact he or she is a patient, it doesn’t hurt to check with your state dental board to see if this person has ever brought a case or complaint before the board, Limoli said. This may seem a bit extreme, but protecting yourself and your practice should be a priority.

“Just like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, there are people out there who don’t have your best interest at heart,” Limoli said. “Dentists are targets for people looking for somebody to take care of them. You have to be very careful with the doctor/patient relationship from this standpoint.”

What if a staff member wants to date a patient?

It’s a good idea to have an office policy on this that says it’s inappropriate to date a patient and could be grounds for termination, said Penny Reed Limoli, owner of the Reed Limoli Group. But if there is a patient a staff member wants to go out with, it needs to be an open situation.

“The doctor is liable for everything that happens in the practice,” Limoli said. “You do have to lay that on the line when you bring staff on board. If you don’t have a policy in place, put one in place. If you date a patient as the dentist, your staff will assume the same standards apply to them. A firm, written policy can help you avoid any misconceptions with your staff and protect you and your practice."

Don’t keep it from your staff
Secrets will only hurt your practice, and keeping something like this from your staff is no exception. Staff members at the Wisconsin practice know about the relationship and are supportive of it.

And your team likely will be supportive, as long as you don’t treat your practice as a dating service. They’ll get annoyed if you constantly ask if a patient is single or are taking a different patient out every night of the week. But if they know you’ve met someone you think you could build a life with, they likely will stand behind your decision to start a relationship.

“If the staff perceives the doctor is evaluating every person as a potential date, that is unprofessional. And I think to try to keep it a secret creates a lack of trust,” Limoli said. “They’re going to find out. So if you do begin to date a patient, let the team know. Maybe not the first time you meet for coffee, but if you’re going to see each other you should let your staff members know so they’re not suspicious. And tell your team it’s not information for water cooler gossip or something to let out of the office.”

While the Wisconsin dentist’s girlfriend is still his patient and it’s working out just fine, Limoli recommends referring any patient you have a romantic interest in to another dentist. That way you break the professional ties and you’re free to date without having to worry about the complications that come with the doctor/patient relationship.

“As quickly as possible I would refer that patient to a colleague,” Limoli said. “Say something like I enjoy having you as a patient, but I think it would be best personally and professionally if I sent you to my friend right down the street.”

When you look at state dental practice acts that talk about the doctor/patient relationship, it’s easy for something to be deemed as inappropriate, Limoli said. Limoli knows of a single client who was simply asking a new patient questions about work and her life to get to know her better. He didn’t ask her out or express any romantic interest, yet she filed a complaint to the board citing inappropriate conduct.

The complaints can also come if you break up with the patient, Limoli said. Your ex could use your professional status and wealth against you. It all comes back to the fact that you need to be careful.

Going on a date
Another way to protect yourself is to make sure you never meet the patient at your practice before a date, Limoli said. Don’t tell him or her to stop by before you head out for a night on the town. Even if you’re dating, he or she should only show up to your practice as a patient who needs a cleaning or some dental work done.

If you’re wondering where to have your first date, Limoli recommends a coffee shop. When you decide you want to continue to see this person, then Limoli says it’s time to consider referring to another dentist.

And of course, if you’re married, don’t even think about going there.

“It’s common sense, but it does happen,” Limoli said. “It can be very dangerous, like swimming in a tank of piranha. The chances of you getting out of there, and dating patients, without something taking a bite out of you are probably slim.”

Don’t let love pass you by
The Wisconsin-based dentist doesn’t make a habit of dating his patients. But after he thought about all he had in common with his now girlfriend, he decided he’d give it a chance. But he didn’t come to the decision lightly. He weighed the pros and cons and decided the pros won.

This dentist also treats family members, business associates, staff members and friends. That says something about his comfort level when it comes to treating people who are close to him, he said, and how you feel about that may play into your decision to date or not to date.

In the end, it all comes down to finding that person you want to share your life with, and it really doesn’t matter if you happened to meet that person as a patient in your dental practice.

“The partner or the spouse you choose is the single most important decision a person can make in their life to determine whether they’re going to be happy or unhappy,” he said. “It’s a huge, monumental decision. With that in mind, you should think about it long and hard before you decide to date or go out with a patient. Realize the importance of the decision of choosing someone who’s a potential mate and weigh the pros and cons. Calculate the risk.”