A resident’s guide to holiday gifting

By Joaquin A. Villegas, MD, MPH
Published December 4, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Residents may be short on both time and cash, but holiday gift-giving doesn’t have to be a source of stress.

  • Meaningful gifts incorporate what you know about the recipient, and don’t necessarily cost a lot of money. Time spent together doing a low-cost activity, or a gift that utilizes your special skill set as a physician in training, will be especially appreciated by friends, family, and coworkers.

  • There is a time and a place for accepting gifts from your patients—read up on the AMA’s Code of Ethics for a refresh on what is and isn’t ethical.

With the holidays soon approaching, a lot of residents find themselves faced with a difficult question—what holiday gifts should I get for my friends and family, and how can I find the time to get them? (And, can I even afford them?)

During residency, finding time for ourselves is hard enough, and the added stress of brainstorming the perfect gift for our loved ones can be difficult to manage. This can be especially difficult if residents are under pressure to give large gifts now that they are “doctors,” despite not yet reaching their full earning potential.

Related: Residents and fellows: Don't fall prey to these 5 money mistakes

Brainstorming gift ideas

When thinking about what to give as gifts during the holidays, it is imperative to start early and brainstorm the right questions about the person that will receive the gift. Some of the easiest questions to think about revolve around major life changes, such as a new home or job, a change in their relationship status, or a new child. You can also consider their hobbies and interests, especially if you and the gift recipient have shared interests.

Thinking of these questions open up many possibilities for potential gifts, and making a list will help you narrow down options that might be within your budget.

For example, a gift for a hobby that you share with them can turn into an experience that you can have together, increasing the value of the gift without having to spend more money. 

As a resident, one of my mentors, who works in dermatology, recognized my interest in dermatologic cases and gifted me her old dermatoscope.

Although the gift did not have much financial value, it meant a lot to me, as she also took the time to teach me how to use it. Her help in developing my skills with skin findings made this gift worth more to me than something expensive.

When giving gifts, emphasize why you chose that gift for the recipient to let them know how much thought went into it. Most people will appreciate the opportunity to spend time together and will not focus on the financial value of the gift.

Ethical dilemma: Receiving gifts from patients

The holidays invite a complex situation regarding patients who want to give gifts to the residents—is it appropriate to even accept these gifts? Are there limitations to what gifts can be accepted?

Accepting gifts from patients can be a complicated issue, even more so for residents who are still learning about how to interact with patients. While the gesture may have good intentions, it can raise many ethical questions.

The AMA’s Code of Medical Ethics states that a gift offered as an “expression of gratitude or reflection of the patient’s cultural tradition” are not just okay to accept, but they can actually enhance the patient-physician relationship.[]

For example, as a second-year resident, I had a lovely patient that I attended during their hospital stay, including subsequent outpatient visits after hospital discharge. The patient and their family were very grateful that I would answer their questions as thoroughly as I could and in a way they understood, so twice a year, the patient would drop off cookies for me and my coworkers as a show of appreciation. Those were definitely the best cookies I had during my residency!

However, it is important to avoid certain pitfalls when receiving gifts that can jeopardize or damage the physician’s duty to equity among patients. The AMA advises against accepting gifts with the intention of (or interpreted as) gaining “influence of care or secure preferential treatment.”

As a rule of thumb, the AMA recommends against disproportionately large gifts that would be embarrassing or difficult to explain to colleagues. Such gifts could influence the management of patients, such as giving priority to their appointments or spending an unequal amount of time with the patient’s visits. Physicians should also consider the possibility of creating an undue financial burden on the patient or their family because of the gift.

Rejecting gifts from patients can be an awkward experience, but it is important to avoid hurting the patient’s feelings when doing so. Make sure to thank the patient for the gift, but be open and honest about the reasons the gift is being declined.[] Reassure them that the doctor-patient relationship has not changed. 

In the past, when I have declined gifts that were inappropriate, I would tell the patient that the greatest gift they can give me is knowing their health has improved because of my care, which shifts the focus back to the reason for their visit.

What this means for you 

The holidays can be stressful for many reasons, but giving and receiving gifts shouldn’t be one of them. With the right amount of planning and understanding the basic rules of gift-giving, even residents can find the perfect gift for their friends and family without breaking the bank.

Read Next: During residency, showing up for your family is equally as important as job performance
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