The new regulations are needed because alternative health practitioners and therapists can easily abuse the same type of power a medical doctor has over a patient. In some cases patients turn to alternative treatments because traditional treatments have failed them so these patients may feel as if they have fewer options.
The role of alternative therapists is to be regulated by the government in a new crackdown on medical professionals who abuse their patients, including inappropriate sexual relationships.
A white paper to be published next month on tackling rogue doctors will also signal that the growing number of therapists and alternative health practitioners, who can now set up with no form of registration or fear of sanctions, will in the longer term be brought under regulatory control.
While doctors can be struck off for incompetent or unethical behaviour - the General Medical Council's latest proposed code of conduct bans not only sex with current patients for fear of exploitation, but with ex-patients after treatment stops - there is no compulsory regulation for counsellors, therapists and practitioners of techniques such as acupuncture or hypnotherapy, who have regular contact with vulnerable people, usually women.
The need for the new regulations to provide clarity for alternative practitioners is highlighted by an Observer investigation into one of Britain's best known alternative therapists, whose actions have triggered complaints of alleged sexual misconduct.
For any treatment to work the patient must defer -- partially or fully, to the authority of the person treating them. That process of deferment should be recognized as a power imbalance and it should never be abused.
All of us can become physically or emotionally vulnerable under certain circumstances. However, more women patients are exploited because women in general are more likely to be sexually exploited. This isn't because women are inferior but because of popular beliefs which says that it is normal for men to look for weaknesses in a woman's defenses and to use those weaknesses to get sex.
If it weren't for impairment, some people would get no sex at all since they don't know the first thing about having a mutual non-exploitive sexual relationship.
Sexual contact or sexual advances during treatment should always be considered unethical if not illegal. However, any new regulations need to be written with care when addressing conduct with ex-patients so fully consensual relationships with no power imbalances are not wrongly labelled as exploitive or criminal contact.
If I go to the ER to have a piece of broken glass pulled from my foot and interact with that doctor for 2 minutes, the doctor/patient relationship isn't such that a relationship a month later (sexual or not) should be assumed to be unethical.
Finding the appropriate boundaries to protect all involved is tricky, but it is critical.
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