Professional-Patient Boundaries: a National Survey of Primary Care Physicians' Attitudes and Practices

J Gen Intern Med. 2020 Feb;35(2):457-464. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05543-0. Epub 2019 Nov 21.


Background: The essence of humanism in medicine and health care is relationships-caring relationships between clinicians and patients. While raising concerns regarding professional-patient boundaries has positively contributed to our understanding and prevention of potentially harmful boundary violations, there is controversy about which types of relationships, caring acts, and practices are acceptable versus cross boundary lines.

Objective: To examine primary care physicians' practices and attitudes regarding acts that have been questioned as potentially "inappropriate" or "unethical" crossing of professional-patient boundaries.

Design: Surveys conducted via in-person polling or electronic and mailed paper submissions from April 2016 to July 2017. We calculated descriptive statistics and examined associations with practices and attitudes using logistic regression.

Participants: Random sample of all US primary care physicians who treat adult patients; convenience sample of attendees at medicine grand rounds presentations.

Main measures: Outcomes were self-reported practices and attitudes related to giving patients rides home, paying for patients' medication, helping patients find jobs, employing patients, going to dinner with patients, and providing care to personal friends.

Key results: Among 1563 total respondents, 34% had given a ride home, 34% had paid for medications, 15% helped patients find a job, 7% had employed a patient, 10% had dinner with patients, and 59% provided care to personal friends. A majority disapproved of dinner with a patient (75%) but approved of or were neutral on all other scenarios (61-90%).

Conclusions: The medical profession is quite divided on questions related to drawing lines about appropriate boundaries. Contrary to official and widespread proscriptions against such practices (with exception of dinner dates), many have actually engaged in such practices and the majority found them acceptable.

Keywords: doctor-patient relationships; ethics; primary care; professionalism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Humanism
  • Humans
  • Physicians, Primary Care*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Self Report
  • Surveys and Questionnaires