Do doctors need formal guidance on how to use dating apps appropriately?
If that seems a strange question, then your reaction probably mirrors that of the many medics who were taken by surprise by the publication last week of an unexpected new NHS handbook: ‘Dating App guidance for doctors and dentists in training’.
The report was published by NHS Health Education England following concerns raised by what it describes as “issues with doctors’ conduct on dating apps” which “have been investigated by the General Medical Council”.
A spokesman for the NHS in England insisted that the document was “not national guidance” but something that had been “drafted to support trainee doctors with meeting GMC guidelines or following recent fitness to practice cases”.
Something could be winging its way to junior doctors north of the border soon too. Scotland’s equivalent body – NHS Education for Scotland – told The Herald that it will “review” the HEE publication “and progress as appropriate for Scottish Doctors in Training”.
What does it say?
The report states that apps “have transformed the dating landscape” over the past decade and risk “blurring of the lines between a doctor’s personal and professional persona”.
While existing GMC guidelines make clear that it is “never appropriate to pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship with a current patient” – or potentially even a former patient, depending on the circumstances – the HEE document states that conduct on dating apps “is a distinct and nuanced entity which is not encompassed as part of the BMA’s and GMC’s social media guidance”.
It notes that “there have been a number of examples of GMC investigations relating to doctors’ and dentists’ in training (DDiT) conduct on dating apps”.
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In compiling its report, the HEE says it aims to “highlight pitfalls to avoid”.
So what are these? The over-arching message was that the standards expected “are the same as those that would be expected in a face-to-face interaction”.
It listed 10 key tips: think carefully about the amount of information you share online; don’t post anything on your profile that you wouldn’t want posted on social media platforms; don’t abuse your status as a doctor or dentist; if possible, avoid ‘sexting’ [consensual sexually explicit conversations via text] – but if you do sext, only do so with people you know and trust; avoid having your face in explicit messages; establish rules about sending and deleting content before starting sexting; delete content from trash bins and online clouds; avoid the use of dating apps whilst at work; don’t mix social and professional relationships with patients; and don’t breach patient confidentiality.
What was the reaction?
Opinions ranged from outrage to bemusement among doctors online, with some describing it as “a joke”, “infantilising and ridiculous”, “overstepping the mark”, and “either nannying or sinister”.
Some questioned why it was necessary at all, while others said most of the advice “seems basic common sense”.
There was a feeling that junior doctors had been unfairly targeted or patronised when no equivalent advice has been drafted for consultants or associate specialists.
One doctor quipped that “reality and parody have now fully merged”, while another suggested that such interference might soon “extend to our hobbies as well as our dating lives”.
However, Andrea James, a regulatory lawyer who advises doctors, said she would “strongly endorse” the advice against sexting.
She added: “People think I’m joking when I mention this in [fitness to practise] lectures, but an astonishing number of our fitness to practise cases really do originate from d**k pics.”
Perhaps the guidance is actually timely, then?
In March this year, a doctor in England – James White – was suspended by a fitness to practise tribunal which heard that he had bombarded six female colleagues from his time at medical school with d**k pics, videos and messages over a four year period after graduating from the University of East Anglia in 2015.
White’s case was a much more clear-cut example of crossing the line, however, given that these were sent unsolicited.
One of his victims told the tribunal she had felt “violated”; another that she feared what he might do in the presence of a sedated patient.
Despite White’s own pleas to be struck off (he told the tribunal he would never practise medicine again), the MPTS panel said erasure would be “disproportionate” and instead suspended him for a year insisting that there was a “public interest in facilitating the safe return to work of an otherwise competent doctor”.