Imagine an inebriated ex- patient regularly phoning you at home late at night to leave long messages complaining about their new GP. You do not reply, but the calls continue, eventually becoming so menacing that you fear for your own and your family's safety.
This is the experience of one GP who contacted the Medical Defence Union (MDU) for advice on what to do when stalked in this manner three years ago. The doctor, Jonathan (not his real name), believes the out-of-hours service inadvertently disclosed his home number to the ex-patient who had moved to a new area.
Understandably, Jonathan felt traumatised, especially as he suspected this patient had an anti-social personality disorder.
The first National Stalking Helpline opened in April this year to aid victims of stalking and harassment.
Stalking is much more common than most people realise. According to the 2004 British Crime Survey, nearly 20 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men have been victims of stalking and harassment at some time in their lives.
Certain professionals, such as GPs and mental health workers, have a much higher risk of being stalked than average.
'They are more at risk bec-ause of their special standing in the community combined with the fact they come into regular contact with people with mental health problems,' says Dr Richard Stacey, a medico-legal adviser at the Medical Protection Society.
Types of stalker
Stalkers who target GPs usually fall into two general categories: those seeking a romantic relationship and those who hold a grudge for perceived wrongdoing by the doctor.
In either case, the stalking behaviour can have a huge impact on the GP. According to a 2005 University of Leicester study on stalking, victims may suffer from stress, insomnia, depression, paranoia and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some stalkers are extremely persistent and when unchec-ked, can bombard their victims for years with unwanted phone calls, personal visits, text messages and emails. Other stalking behaviour includes persistent loitering, issuing threats or making false allegations about the GP to the GMC.
Defence body advice
As for stopping a stalker, getting advice from your defence body is a good place to start. There is a wide range of measures that you can take depending on the nature of the stalking.
'For example, if a patient is harassing a GP at a low level, it may be enough for the doctor to send then a carefully worded warning letter,' says Dr Stacey.
He adds that if the behaviour continues, the GP is then legally entitled to remove the patient from practice's list, as long as a written warning was given to the patient in the 12 months prior to removal from the list - in line with the GMS regulations.
'Alternatively, the GP can ask their medical defence body to write a letter on their behalf, asking the patient to stop the harassing behaviour.'
If neither of these tactics work, it may be appropriate to begin civil action by getting a solicitor to write to the stalker asking them to stop.
'If the stalking still continues, the next step is taking out a formal injunction against the patient under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
This is especially appropriate where the stalker is turning up at the surgery, at the GP's home or at their children's school,' says Dr Stacey.
If there is a threat of violence, the police should be called as soon as possible. Stalking is recognised as a serious crime and every police force now has an officer trained in dealing with it. Dr Stacey adds that if threatened with violence by a patient, the individual can be removed from the list without first receiving a warning about their behaviour.
However, Dr Stacey points out that if a stalking patient remains on a practice's list, it must continue to provide care for the patient. Often the stalking behaviour will be a presentation of a mental illness and the patient may need to be referred for appropriate therapy.
If you are being stalked, record keeping is very important. You will need it as evidence if the patient reports you to the GMC for misconduct or if you need to take out an injunction against the patient.
'Keep a log of dates and times of phone calls and anything that was said. Also keep letters or gifts and make a note of any instances of loitering or threatening behaviour,' says Dr Emma Cuzner, a medico-legal adviser at the MDU.
'While it is impossible to tell who will become a stalker and who will not, there are steps that can be taken to help nip unwanted behaviour in the bud quickly, or even prevent it from happening in the first place,' she adds.
- Contact the National Stalking Helpline on 0300 636 0300 or firstname.lastname@example.org