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Does sex between colleagues put patients at risk?

The Professional Standards Authority today published the results of research with professionals and patients examining sexual behaviour between health professionals and its potential impact on patients.

We have observed that professionals subject to fitness to practise proceedings for sexual misconduct towards colleagues may receive lesser sanctions than professionals who had crossed sexual boundaries with their patients. We referred three such cases to Court under our powers to appeal regulators’ panel decisions but lost.  

We wanted to find out if our views on how seriously this behavior should be treated were out-of-step with public opinion. The research conducted for us by Dr Simon Christmas and colleague explored both the views of health professionals and patients using scenarios based on real cases. Three key questions covered in the report are:

  1. When does behaviour towards/with a colleague cross a boundary?
  2. How is boundary-crossing behaviour relevant to fitness to practise?
  3. How should regulators respond to such behaviour?

The research highlighted participants’ views on how this type of behaviour can have a negative impact on patient safety and the quality of their care:

  • it may point to deep-seated attitudinal problems and motivations – including a lack of empathy (which many of the interviewees thought was an essential quality in a health professional) which may pose a risk to patients
  • there may be wider impacts of boundary-crossing behaviour, including the effect it has on the colleague subject to it (stress, distraction, anxiety)
  • it may create a culture where boundary-crossing behaviour becomes acceptable (potentially creating toxic working environments where bullying is normalised)
  • it may affect public confidence and trust in health and care professionals where such behaviour is witnessed or heard about.

Christine Braithwaite, Director of Policy and Standards said, ‘This fascinating research has shown ‘how’ people think about sexual behaviour between colleagues and when it crosses boundaries. We think it will prove a valuable resource for regulatory panels thinking about cases of this nature. It highlights the importance of professional conduct in protecting patients and maintaining public confidence.’

The report – Sexual behaviours between health and care practitioners: where does the boundary lie? can be downloaded from our website. We have also produced a summary visual highlighting some of the key findings.

Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care

Contact: 

Christine Braithwaite, Director Standards and Policy
E: Christine.Braithwaite@professionalstandards.org.uk

Reception: 020 7389 8030

Notes to the Editor

  1. The Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care oversees nine statutory bodies that regulate health and social care professionals in the UK.

  2. We assess their performance and report to Parliament. We also conduct audits and investigations and can appeal fitness to practise cases to the courts if we consider that sanctions are insufficient to protect the public and it is in the public interest.

  3. We also set standards for organisations holding voluntary registers for health and social care occupations and accredit those that meet them.

  4. We share good practice and knowledge, conduct research and introduce new ideas to our sector. We monitor policy developments in the UK and internationally and provide advice on issues relating to professional standards in health and social care.

  5. We do this to promote the health, safety and wellbeing of users of health and social care services and the public. We are an independent body, accountable to the UK Parliament.

  6. Our values are at the heart of who we are and what we do. We are committed to being impartial, fair, accessible and consistent in the application of our values.

  7. More information about our work and the approach we take is available at www.professionalstandards.org.uk