AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Journal of Ethics Header

AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Virtual Mentor. February 2000, Volume 2, Number 2.

Cases in Law and Ethics

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Student Dating of Patients' Relatives

An ethical case explores whether it is appropriate for a third-year medical student to date the mother of a 3-year-old patient.

Both ethics and law address norms that govern physicians' behavior. Many view the law as a baseline for articulating the limits placed on individuals living within society as well as an enabling device to facilitate social relationships. Encompassing as the law may be in some areas of human conduct, in many others it is silent. In the absence of legal norms or prohibitions, physicians often find guidance in the standards arrived at through ethical reasoning.

To guide students through the process of ethical reasoning and to acquaint them with case law, a new case study will appear every 2 to 4 weeks. Students will be given legal and/or ethical opinions to assist their decision-making.

February Case Scenario

John, a third-year medical student, is currently doing a pediatrics rotation. One of the patients he has seen is Nicholas, a 3-year-old with a chronic ear infection. John has seen Nicholas several times during his rotation. Nicholas' 25-year-old mother, Paula, appreciates the care her son has received from the attending physician and John. Paula is single and a student at a local community college. John feels that he and Paula have some "chemistry" and would like to ask her out on a date. John realizes that it is unethical for a physician to have a sexual relationship with a patient, but he thinks that asking Paula out is harmless. Even if their relationship should develop into something sexual, John thinks there is no harm in that because his role is that of a medical student and the patient is Nicholas and not his mother.

  1. What do you think of John's reasoning?
  2. Do you think there is a potential problem here?

See what the AMA Code of Medical Ethics says about this topic in Opinion 8.145 Sexual or romantic relations between physicians and key third parties. American Medical Association. Code of Medical Ethics 2008-2009 Edition. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association; 2008:283.

Related Articles

  • Cullen RM, Northwood BR. Medical discipline and sexual activity between doctors and patients. N Z Med J. 1005;108:481-483.
  • Wilbers D, Veenstra G, van de Wiel HB, Weijman Schultz WC. Sexual contact in the doctor-patient relationship in the Netherlands. BMJ. 1992;304:1531-1534.
  • Coverdale J, Bayer T, Chiang E, Thornby J, Bangs M. National survey on physicians' attitudes toward social and sexual contact with patients. South Med J. 1994;87:1067-1071.
  • Gartrell NK, Milliken N, Goodson WH 3d, Thiemann S, Lo B. Physician-patient sexual contact: prevalence and problems.West Med J. 1992;157:139-143.
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