What to do when your friend asks for medical advice

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published May 26, 2023

Key Takeaways

We have all been there: A friend or family member tells us about their symptoms and asks for medical advice—whether it is out of curiosity, or they need help in an unfamiliar situation, or they want a “curbside” second opinion from a doctor they know on a personal level.

My personal experience

One of my good friends, a neighbor, was experiencing excruciating back pain and asked if I could come over. His girlfriend told him to go to the ER immediately, but once I arrived and asked him some questions, it was apparent he had textbook sciatica. 

I advised him to rest, hydrate, use ice and hot packs, and take a full dose of NSAID. I explained that if he felt the pain was too excruciating and needed stronger pain meds, he could go to the ER. I knew the ER doctor would most likely do some imaging and prescribe a few opioids with a referral to follow up with a specialist later if the pain did not worsen. 

His girlfriend wanted him to go to the ER for a “steroid shot in his spine.” But I calmly explained that that is not an ER procedure but requires a visit with an orthopedic specialist and an anesthesiologist, as it is done under guided imaging. I also advised that once he felt better, practicing yoga or seeing a physical therapist to learn exercises to strengthen the para-spinal muscles could be wise. 

Within a few days, the excruciating pain resolved, and he was very grateful he did not go into the ER. 

Giving medical advice can be a double-edged sword

As a physician, dispensing medical advice to a friend or family member can be a double-edged sword, similar to prescribing medications to a loved one. On the one hand, we want to help those we care about, especially if it is a temporary issue such as a minor cold or injury that doesn’t require a visit to a doctor in a clinic. 

On the other hand, however, we could be doing more harm than good. 

 The AMA code of ethics states, “[W]hile physicians should not serve as a primary or regular care provider for immediate family members, there are situations in which routine care is acceptable for short-term, minor problems.”[]

"It is wonderful to be able to provide medical care to friends and family."

Kristen Fuller, MD

When I look at what my loved ones must go through when they have any one of several very common symptoms (such as rash, cough, upset stomach, back pain, or urinary discomfort), I know I can do better for them. I know that they, alternatively, could present to urgent care and wait hours to be seen, given an unnecessary antibiotic with very little history taken, and fail to schedule any sort of follow up. It makes me cringe. I know I can do better than that, but I must always consider the potential downsides. 

"The biggest downside of giving medical advice to friends or family members who are not your patients is that you are potentially, unknowingly, rendering less-than-ideal care."

Kristen Fuller, MD

For example, what happens if you give advice but your friend or family member does not take it, and does something to worsen their medical condition?

It is not uncommon that an easy problem turns into a bigger problem, at which time you may not be available. You then have provided treatment for a friend or family member but left no easily accessible record to help the next care provider figure out what’s going on. 

I believe that providing objective advice to a friend or family member is useful—the problem is when the advice becomes subjective, relies on the physician’s judgment, or is beyond the physician’s scope of expertise. 

To my fellow physicians, I suggest that you weigh each situation carefully and consider how close your relationship is to this friend or family member. For example, if you are giving objective advice to your child or your best friend, it may be a no-brainer, but if the relationship is more distant or ambiguous, you might want to limit your advice to this person. 

If you are unsure how to respond

So, what can you say to friends or family members who ask you for medical advice that you aren’t comfortable providing? Here are some possible responses: 

  • “Let me make sure that I understand clearly what you are asking…”

  • “I am willing and glad to help, but please understand that I have not examined you.” Or, “...I am not a dermatologist/I am not your doctor.”

  • “I am not your doctor, but in situations like this, I believe [blank] is recommended.”

  • “I am sorry, but I don’t think I can do this because...”

  • “Under these circumstances, you should not rely on me for medical advice.”

  • “I would feel better if you asked your doctor about this.”

  • “I am your friend (or cousin, etc.) who happens to be a physician, but I think you can appreciate that this is not the same as being your physician.”

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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