Approved by Council: September 2008
Reviewed and Updated: June 2017, May 2018
- Information About Funding for Therapy and Counselling
- Boundaries Self-Assessment Tool
- Brochure: Reporting Sexual Abuse – Do You Think Your Doctor Crossed the Line? (Available in additional languages via Sexual Abuse Complaints page)
This policy has been developed to provide guidance to physicians and to help physicians understand and comply with the legislative provisions of the Regulated Health Professions Act, 1991 (RHPA)1 regarding sexual abuse. It sets out the College’s expectations of a physician’s behaviour within the physician-patient relationship, after the physician-patient relationship ends, and with respect to persons closely associated with patients.
Sexual relations between physicians and patients have long been considered to be unethical. The Hippocratic Oath states that physicians:
…will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons be they free or slaves.
Sexual abuse of patients by physicians was identified as a significant problem in 1991, when the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario released several reports from its Task Force on patient sexual abuse. These reports provided the impetus for changes to the RHPA, and a number of provisions that deal with sexual abuse were specifically added to the RHPA to address this issue. In doing so, the notions of Hippocrates have been brought into the modern regulation of the profession of medicine.
Under the RHPA, any form of sexual relations between physicians and patients is considered to be sexual abuse. Consent by the patient is no defence to sexual abuse.
Under the Health Professions Procedural Code (HPPC)2 it is an act of professional misconduct for a physician to sexually abuse a patient.
The RHPA defines “sexual abuse” as follows:
“sexual abuse” of a patient by a member means,
- sexual intercourse or other forms of physical sexual relations between the member and the patient,
- touching, of a sexual nature, of the patient by the member, or
- behaviour or remarks of a sexual nature by the member towards the patient.
Note: Touching, behaviour or remarks of a clinical nature appropriate to the service provided do not constitute sexual abuse.3
The HPPC provides for mandatory revocation of a physician’s certificate of registration in certain circumstances relating to sexual abuse.4, 5 For sexual abuse that does not require mandatory revocation (as described in notes 4-5), the penalty ordered by the the Discipline Committee must at least include a reprimand and suspension.6 If a physician’s certificate of registration is revoked for sexual abuse, that physician cannot reapply until five years after the revocation.7
If sexual contact takes place after the physician-patient relationship has been ended and it is not considered sexual abuse under the legislation, the physician may still be found to have committed professional misconduct.8
Foundation of a Physician-Patient Relationship
Trust is the cornerstone of the physician-patient relationship. When a patient seeks care from a physician, the patient trusts that the physician is a professional and as such will treat them in a professional manner. To maintain trust, a physician must avoid making or responding to sexual advances. Sexualizing the relationship is a clear breach of trust.
The physician-patient relationship is characterized by a power imbalance in favour of the physician.
- A patient depends upon the physician’s knowledge and training to provide care.
- To receive care, patients provide information of a sensitive nature about themselves or family members.
- Patients also allow the physician to conduct intimate physical examinations.
- The transfer of information and the physical examination is one-sided, from patient to physician.
- Patients may feel particularly vulnerable if they:
- are feeling unwell, experiencing pain, and/or are worried or afraid;
- do not speak the same language as the physician;
- are undressed or exposed.
- A physician, being in a position of trust and power, has a duty to act in the patient’s best interest.
- Physicians must establish and maintain appropriate professional boundaries with patients.
- Sexual activity and ‘romantic interactions’ interfere with the goals of the physician-patient relationship and may obscure the physician’s objective judgment concerning the patient’s health care.
- Physician sexual misconduct is detrimental to the physician-patient relationship, harms individual patients and erodes the public’s trust in the medical profession.
- Patients must be protected from sexual abuse by physicians.
The policy has several sections which are as follows:
Part A: Sexual Relations Prohibited during the Physician-Patient Relationship specifically addresses sexual abuse as defined in the RHPA.
Part C: Sexual Relations after Termination of the Physician-Patient Relationship does not address sexual abuse, but focuses on professional misconduct as a result of inappropriate behaviour.
Part D: Relationships between Physicians and Persons Closely Associated with Patients. Similar to Part C, this section does not address sexual abuse, but focuses on professional misconduct as a result of inappropriate behaviour.
Physicians must not become sexually involved with their patients. Sexual involvement with a patient is sexual abuse under the RHPA regardless of whether the physician believes there is ‘consent’ from the patient.
It is always the physician’s responsibility to ensure that appropriate boundaries are maintained, regardless of the patient’s behaviour.
Physicians should follow the guidelines below when treating a patient in order to maintain proper boundaries within the physician-patient relationship:
- A physician must not make sexual advances towards a patient nor respond sexually to any form of sexual advance made by a patient.
- Physicians should explain the scope of an examination and reasons for examinations/procedures to patients.
- Although third parties are not mandatory, the presence of a third party during an intimate examination may contribute to both patient and physician comfort. Patients should be given the option of having a third party present. In cases where a physician is unable to provide such a person, the patient should be informed that they may bring in a person of their choosing with them.
- While physicians may intend non-sexual and non-clinical touching of patients to be therapeutic or comforting, supportive words or discussion may be preferable to avoid misinterpretation.
Appendix “A” lists additional guidelines for ensuring proper boundaries within the physician-patient relationship. The Boundaries Self-Assessment Tool is also a good resource to help physicians understand boundary issues.
Because the RHPA prohibits sexual relationships between a physician and a patient, it is important to determine whether a physician-patient relationship exists.
As prescribed in regulation9, an individual is a patient of a physician if there is direct interaction and any of the following conditions are met:
- The physician has charged or received payment from the individual (or a third party on behalf of the individual) for a health care service provided by the professional;
- The physician has contributed to a health record or file for the individual;
- The individual has consented to the healthcare service recommended by the physician; or,
- The physician prescribed the individual a drug for which a prescription is needed.
An individual is not a physician’s patient if all of the following conditions are met:
- There is a sexual relationship between the individual and the physician at the time the health care service is provided to the individual;
- The health care service provided by the physician to the individual was done so due to an emergency or was minor in nature; and,
- The physician has taken reasonable steps to transfer the individual’s care, or there is no reasonable opportunity to transfer care.
For the purposes of determining sexual abuse of a patient, the physician-patient relationship endures for a minimum of 1 year after the date upon which the individual ceased to be the member’s patient.10
In addition to the criteria set-out in regulation11, a factual inquiry must be made in each case to determine whether a physician-patient relationship exists, and when it ends.12 The longer the physician-patient relationship and the more dependency involved, the longer the relationship will endure. Where a physician is in doubt as to whether the physician-patient relationship has ended, they should refrain from any relationship with the patient until they seek advice.13
Ending the physician-patient relationship does not eliminate the possibility that sexual contact between a physician and a former patient may be considered to be professional misconduct.14
A physician must end the physician-patient relationship before engaging in sexual relations with a former patient. When ending the relationship, physicians must comply with the College’s Ending the Physician-Patient Relationship policy. Specifically, it is the physician’s responsibility to ensure that termination of the physician-patient relationship is communicated to the patient and documented in the patient’s record. Physicians should also ensure that alternative services are arranged or the patient is given a reasonable opportunity to arrange alternative services.15
After a physician has terminated the physician-patient relationship in accordance with the College’sEnding the Physician-Patient Relationship policy, any form of sexual relations between the physician and the individual will be considered sexual abuse for a minimum of 1 year after the date upon which the individual ceased to be the physician’s patient.16 If the sexual abuse involves any acts as described in notes 4-5, the physician’s certificate of registration will be subject to mandatory revocation.17
Sexual relations with a former patient after a 1 year period has elapsed may still be considered inappropriate and may be found to amount to professional misconduct. At the conclusion of a minimum 1 year period, other factors must be considered prior to engaging in sexual relations with a former patient.
In determining the propriety of a sexual relationship between a physician and a former patient, a number of factors will be considered, including:
- the length and intensity of the former professional relationship;
- the nature of the patient’s clinical problem;
- the type of clinical care provided by the physician;
- the extent to which the patient has confided personal or private information to the physician; and,
- the vulnerability the patient has in the physician-patient relationship.
For example, when the physician-patient relationship involves a significant component of psychotherapy, sexual relations with the patient is likely inappropriate at any time after termination. However, if a physician saw a patient on one or two occasions to provide routine clinical care, it may not be inappropriate to engage in sexual relations with the former patient within a short time following the conclusion of a minimum 1 year period after the end of the physician-patient relationship.
At all times, a physician has an ethical obligation not to exploit the trust, knowledge and dependence that develops during the physician-patient relationship for the physician’s personal advantage. A physician who is considering an intimate or sexual relationship with a former patient should act cautiously, making sure to consider the potentially complex issues. As well, a physician should ensure that the former patient has a good understanding of the dynamics of the physician-patient relationship and the boundaries applicable to that relationship.
D. Relationships between Physicians and Persons Closely Associated with Patients18
Sexual relations between physicians and individuals who are closely associated with a physician’s patients may also raise concerns about breach of trust and power imbalance.
In addition to the risk of exploitation, sexual relations between a physician and a person closely associated with a patient can detract from the goal of furthering the patient’s best interests. It has the potential of affecting the objectivity of the physician’s and the closely associated person’s decisions.
The decisions of persons closely associated with a patient impact on the health care provided to the patient. As such, these individuals play an important role in the fiduciary relationship between a physician and the patient. Therefore physicians should maintain the same professional boundaries as they would with a patient.
Therefore, it is advisable that physicians refrain from engaging in sexual relations with these individuals. Physicians may be found to have committed professional misconduct if they engage in sexual relations with such individuals.19
A physician should weigh the following factors when considering engaging in sexual relations with a person closely associated with a patient:
- the nature of the patient’s clinical problem;
- the type of clinical care provided by the physician;
- the length and intensity of the professional relationship;
- the degree of emotional dependence the individual associated with the patient has on the physician; and
- the degree to which the patient is reliant on the person closely associated with them.
A physician must comply with the reporting requirements of the HPPC.20
Briefly, physicians must report if they have reasonable grounds, obtained in the course of practising the profession, to believe that another member of the same or a different regulated health college has sexually abused a patient. Also, physicians or others who operate a facility must report if they have reasonable grounds to believe that a health professional practising in the facility has sexually abused a person. For a more complete description of reporting requirements, a physician should consult the College’s Mandatory and Permissive Reporting policy and the relevant legislation.
Guidelines for Maintaining Professional Boundaries
- Avoid physical contact with a patient (except what is required to perform medically necessary examinations).
- Use gloves when examining genitals.
- Show sensitivity and respect for the patient's privacy and comfort at all times:
- avoid watching a patient dress or undress
- provide privacy and appropriate covers and gowns
- Avoid any behaviour or remarks that may be interpreted as sexual by a patient.
- Endeavour to be aware and mindful of the patient’s particular cultural or religious background.
- Do not make sexualized comments about a patient's body or clothing.
- Do not criticize or comment unnecessarily on a patient's sexual preference.
- Do not ask or make comments about sexual performance except where the examination or consultation is pertinent to the issue of sexual function or dysfunction.
- Do not ask details of sexual history or sexual behaviour unless related to the purpose of the consultation or examination.
- Be cognizant of social interactions with patients that may lead to romantic involvement.
- Do not talk with your patients about your own sexual preferences, fantasies, problems, activities or performance.
- Learn to control the therapeutic setting and to detect possible erosions in boundaries.
1. This policy includes the amendments to the Regulated Health Professions Act, 1991, S.O. 1001, c.18 (hereinafter RHPA) contained in Bill 87 (Protecting Patients Act, 2017) that are currently in force, and does not include the provisions that have yet to be proclaimed, along with any other requirements that will be developed in regulation.
4. The HPPC provides for mandatory revocation for these certain acts of sexual abuse: sexual intercourse; genital to genital, genital to anal, oral to genital, or oral to anal contact; masturbation of the member by, or in the presence of, the patient; masturbation of the patient by the member; encouraging the patient to masturbate in the presence of the member; touching of a sexual nature of the patient’s genitals, anus, breasts or buttocks; other conduct of a sexual nature prescribed in regulations made pursuant to clause 43 (1) (u) of the RHPA (Section 51(5) of the HPPC).
5. The HPPC also provides for mandatory revocation when the physician has been found guilty of professional misconduct by the governing body of another health profession in Ontario, or the governing body of a health profession in a jurisdiction other than Ontario and the misconduct includes or consists of the certain acts of sexual abuse described in note 4 (Section 51(5.2) of the HPPC).
8. Allegations of professional misconduct that could be made under the following grounds: 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 and/or conduct unbecoming a physician (Section 1(1), paragraphs 33 and 34 of Professional Misconduct, O Reg. 856/93, enacted under the Medicine Act, 1991, S.O. 1991, c. 30 (hereinafter Medicine Act, Professional Misconduct Regulation).
10. A physician who engages in sexual relations with a former patient within one year of the end of the physician-patient relationship would be found to have engaged in sexual abuse. This minimum period may be extended by regulation. For more information about ending the physician-patient relationship, please see the College’s Ending the Physician-Patient Relationship policy.
12. The Courts have found that certain physician-patient relationships may endure subsequent to the end of the formal relationship, for example, in the case of a long-standing psychotherapeutic relationship.
13. Physicians are advised to contact the CMPA.
14. Allegations of professional misconduct that could be made under the following grounds: 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 and/or conduct unbecoming a physician. (Section 1(1), paragraphs 33 and 34 of the Medicine Act, Professional Misconduct Regulation).
18. Examples of these individuals include but are not limited to: patients’ spouses or partners, parents, guardians, substitute decision-makers and persons who hold powers of attorney for personal care. Such individuals possess one or more of the following features:
- They are responsible for the patient’s welfare and hold decision-making power on behalf of the patient.
- They are emotionally close to the patient. Their participation in the clinical encounter, more often than not, matters a great deal to the patient.
- The physician interacts and communicates with them about the patient’s condition on a regular basis, and is in a position to offer information, advice, and emotional support.
19. Allegations of professional misconduct that could be made under the following grounds: 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 and/or conduct unbecoming a physician (Section 1(1), paragraphs 33 and 34 of the Medicine Act, Professional Misconduct Regulation).