Friendly doctors are ‘bad for their patients’ health’, researchers have warned as a new study revealed two thirds of young medics struggle to be truthful with patients they like.
Blurring the lines between social and professional relationships can impact on the level of care offered and prevent patients from being honest about important side effects.
Doctors should refrain from adding patients as friends on Facebook, they should not hug or allow patients to call them by their first names, regulators have warned.
They said those who breach the boundaries could face disciplinary action.
It comes as a survey of 338 oncologists under the age of 40, published in The Lancet Oncology, found 59 per cent said they found it difficult to tell the truth to those patients they liked.
Sixty per cent of respondents said if doctors felt too close to their patients, it could prevent them from making objective decisions about a person’s care, the Times reported.
Lesley Fallowfield, of Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said: ‘Oncology is a specialty that can be enormously rewarding but is fraught with many challenges.
‘Young oncologists have to master dealing with anxious patients who are facing a life-threatening disease; conveying the true prognosis; discussing the complexity of modern treatments; and explaining the unavailability of some drugs, the side-effects of treatment, and likely therapeutic aims.’
But she said for those doctors who have entered the profession in the age of the ‘cyber world’, are more likely to fall victim to blurring the professional boundaries with patients.
She said: ‘The difficulty, if you hug and kiss patients, if you allow them to call you by your first name, is that quickly the relationship can become confused as a social one rather than a professional one.
‘Doctors become confused, “I really like this person, how can I bear to tell them that they’re going to die?”
‘They find it more difficult to be objective.’
Professor Fallowfield said while doctors can find it harder to be truthful, and break bad news to patients, blurring the professional lines can impact on the patient’s behaviour too.
She said those being treated can ‘feel intimidated about complaining’, or fail to raise issues regarding unpleasant side effects of treatment, which could prove vitally important.
The study found half of doctors questioned had given patients their personal mobile numbers, a fifth had accepted social invitations from patients and 14 per cent had accepted them as friends on Facebook.
A spokesman for the General Medical Council, which regulates doctors, said: ‘The rise in the use of social media also brings new challenges and doctors must consider the risks involved and the impact it could have on the relationship with their patients.
‘Our guidance explains that the standards expected of doctors do not change because they are communicating through social media rather than face-to-face.’