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Can a psychologist be sued for malpractice?

Psychologists typically have fewer malpractice suits filed against them than medical doctors who treat people for physical ailments and diseases. (Note that psychiatrists are also medical doctors and can prescribe drugs.)

Indeed, fewer than 2 percent of psychologists are defendants in malpractice suits. Their chances of facing a licensing board complaint and disciplinary action are greater.

The most common reason for these complaints is sexual misconduct or another type of behavior that's inappropriate for the psychologist-patient relationship. This is known as having a "multiple relationship." This can also be cause for a malpractice suit.

One official with the American Psychological Association (APA) says, "We're taught in grad school that the No. 1 malpractice offense is inappropriate sexual relationships with clients, and I think many of us have an image in our head about what kind of psychologist would engage in that -- and that it's not us. However, "we're all human, so it's important for early career psychologists to make sure they're familiar with these ethical issues and what the Ethics Code has to say about them."

Ethics experts say that psychologists can avoid getting into a multiple relationship with a patient by first understanding what it is. It doesn't have to be a sexual relationship. It can be any kind of relationship outside of a therapeutic one -- for example, hiring a patient to do their taxes. Conversely, providing psychological advice to someone with whom you have a professional relationship can also be problematic. Even having a social media relationship with a patient -- such as becoming Facebook "friends" with them -- can be a boundary violation.

Technology can also create confidentiality violations. For example, if a psychologist texts or emails a patient about a matter they've been discussing, they're taking a chance that someone else could see the communication or even pretend to be their patient.

If you believe that a psychologist has caused harm to you or a loved one, overstepped their boundaries and/or breached an expectation of confidentiality, it's wise to find out what your options are -- including filing a complaint with the state licensing board or a lawsuit. An attorney experienced in handling malpractice cases can provide valuable guidance.

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