I recently received a very thoughtful email from a reader. I'm posting it here (slightly edited) with permission from the writer:
I recently stumbled across your very helpful and insightful blog. I had a question that I thought you might be able to help me with. I was wondering if you could possibly cover something on appropriate boundaries in the doctor/patient relationship.I have seen a few pieces on obvious violations of this (romantic and/or sexual relationships where the doctor clearly took advantage of a patient), but I was more curious about the grayer areas, where doctors may be a bit too familiar with their patients.
I ask because I saw a male OB throughout a recent pregnancy. He was quite attentive, very competent, and overall a wonderful doctor. However, sometimes he made comments that took me off guard and I was never quite sure how they were relevant to my medical care. For example, he asked if my husband still got erections and later asked me to describe how I felt when I had an orgasm. On one hand, I could see how questions regarding sexual activity during pregnancy are pertinent, but never before has an OB asked me these questions during a pregnancy. The questions seemed a little odd to me, but I also wonder if perhaps this OB is just much more thorough in his care than my previous one.
I'd appreciate any light you could shed on the matter of grayer areas in the doctor/patient relationship.
What a terrific - and important - question! Here's my reply:
As you say, the questions your obstetrician asked could be relevant to your obstetrical care, but they could also be part of an effort to see if you might be sexually/romantically available. As a general rule of thumb, when the medical relevance of questions physicians ask isn't obvious, we should explain why we are asking the questions. Not having done that, your obstetrician created a situation in which a reasonable patient might wonder "are these questions part of good medical care, or is the doctor 'coming on' to me?"
I think the most we can say is that the obstetrician might have been committing what in medical ethics language would be called a "boundary violation." If that was his intent, it was clearly a breach of professional ethics. But if it was not his intent, he failed to make clear why the questions were relevant. For example, he might have said "In my experience, it's not uncommon for couples to encounter difficulties with sexual intimacy during pregnancy...." But it's still unclear what the relevance of your experience of orgasm would be to medical care, unless you had brought up a concern of your own, or if he had said something like "I'm trying to learn about sexual relationships during pregnancy, so if it's OK with you I'd like to ask you..."
Ideally, patients will ask for clarification when they're uncertain about what we are asking about or doing. But in my practice there were times when I thought I was being clear but learned that I had inadvertently confused my patient. The power imbalance in the medical relationship means that physicians can't rely on patients to ensure clarity. Your email shows you to be a very clear thinker, but apparently you didn't feel comfortable saying something like "Could you explain how that question relates to my obstetrical care?"
If a resident or colleague asked me if it was OK to inquire about a partner's erections or the experience of orgasm in the course of obstetrical care, I would (1) ask about the relevance of the questions to the patient's care and, if there was clear relevance (2) recommend that the physician explain why he was asking the questions, to avoid generating the kind of concerns you experienced.
So, in answer to the question of whether your physician was committing a boundary violation, my response is that it's possible that he was. We know from patient reports that sexual exploitation is often preceded by suggestive/ambiguous comments that in retrospect appear to be "testing the waters" or "dropping hints." But it's also possible that the questions were entirely relevant to his objectives for your care. If that's the case, he was "guilty" of poor clinical communication.
Thank you again for your very valuable question!