Most people would agree that a doctor who has a sexual relationship with a patient is engaging in some extremely unethical behavior. But does that behavior justify a medical malpractice suit? Not necessarily, according to a recent ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. While psychiatrists and other mental health professionals can still be sued for malpractice for sexual relations with a patient, general practitioners aren’t subject to the same rules, the court said.

The high court’s decision stemmed from a case out of Philadelphia, where a woman and her husband sued the woman’s doctor in 2003 after the two had an affair. Although the doctor was treating her for anxiety and depression, he was the couple’s family physician. In Pennsylvania, general practitioners are licensed to provide mental health services without board certification in psychology or psychiatry.

The couple claimed in their lawsuit that the extra-marital affair with a doctor who was treating her condition made the woman’s psychological problems worse, thereby constituting medical malpractice. They also sued for negligence and loss of consortium, among other claims.

The state Supreme Court disagreed, deciding 5-1 to reverse a Superior Court ruling in 2009 that all doctors are prohibited from having consensual sex with a patient. While doing so may represent a serious ethical violation, it does not constitute malpractice, the court said. As one justice said, the court did not condone the doctor’s actions, but he was under no “heightened” duty to refrain from having a sexual relationship with his patient.

The lone dissenting justice said that if a general practitioner treats a patient for mental disorders, he or she should understand the consequences of that care when it’s accompanied by a sexual relationship. And the majority agreed that mental health professionals should still be barred from getting personally involved with their patients’ emotions, because they form the basis of the doctor’s care. But the relationship isn’t the same for general practitioners, even if they do advise patients on mental health conditions.

The bottom line: A sexual relationship with your doctor is almost never a good idea. And the recent ruling means that if you choose to engage in one and regret it later, you have no financial recourse for resulting mental health problems.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Pa. Supreme Court rules general practitioners not held to sex prohibitions,” Zack Needles, Oct. 15, 2012

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