Avoid intimate relationships with patients, clients: Sunshine

By Rob Lamberti, Contributor

A regulated health professional will have their certificate of registration revoked if they become involved in a sexual relationship with a patient or client, Toronto health lawyer Elyse Sunshine, tells

"Even if the health professional was vigorously pursued by a patient, and ultimately succumbed to their advances, and entered into a relationship or engaged in sexual contact, that is sexual abuse," says Sunshine, partner with Rosen Sunshine LLP.

"Any health professional who is caught, and convicted of sexual abuse, even in the context of a relationship, by their regulatory College will find themselves with a revoked certificate of registration."

Sunshine cites a recent finding where an Oakville psychiatrist had her certificate of registration revoked by the College of Physicians and Surgeons after having an affair with a married patient.

The College found the psychiatrist "engaged in sexual abuse of a patient; and in that she has engaged in an act or omission relevant to the practice of medicine that, having regard to all the circumstances, would reasonably be regarded by members as disgraceful, dishonourable or unprofessional."

Sunshine says the Health Professions Procedural Code is clear about the prohibition against relationships between health professionals and their patients or clients.

"The very nature of that entire relationship is so inherently imbalanced," she says. "The issue is not who initiates the relationship — it is that the relationship exists at all. Regardless of who initiates sexual contact with a patient or client, that is sexual abuse. There can never be consent."

Some health professionals still don’t seem to realize the legal and professional boundaries that exist between them and their patients or clients, she says.

"Any time you are providing health care services, that person is your patient, and you cannot be in a relationship with them," Sunshine says, adding that patients shouldn’t have to feel that they must protect themselves from a caregiver.

"A health professional has an obligation to make sure these types of situations don't happen," Sunshine says.

The College requires its members to report other health professionals who are having an affair, in a relationship with a patient or client, or who engaged in any form of sexual abuse and, in 2015, took steps to provide greater protection from sexual abuse, she says.

"That's the message to health professionals. We are just not going to tolerate this kind of behaviour, and it is your obligation to ensure it does not happen," Sunshine says. "Your practice is not a dating pool."

She says she's seen cases where spurned ex-spouses have filed complaints, and instances where they were submitted by former patient-lovers after a consensual relationship ended.

"A number of health professionals had their certificates revoked because that relationship was fine until it wasn't fine, and the ex-complained. Even if the facts seem sympathetic, and you have two adults in a relationship, the discipline committee has no choice but to revoke the professional’s licence," Sunshine says. "You're the professional. You need to find your love interests elsewhere.

"You have to be aware of what you are doing, and take whatever steps necessary to prevent that situation unless you are prepared to pay the ultimate price."

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