When the patient is someone you love

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published June 2, 2022

Key Takeaways

As physicians, we often feel compelled to get involved in the medical care of those we love—including family members.

A few years ago, when I was visiting my parents, my stepdad woke me in the middle of the night. He said I needed to look at my mom because she was “acting funny.”

I called 911 and explained the situation. When the paramedics arrived, I told them what I suspected. They checked her blood pressure—it read 240/186.

"I asked if they could run that again, and immediately knew I’d overstepped my boundaries."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Once the second reading returned with similar results, I asked which hospital they were taking her to.

I wanted what was best for my mom, and wanted to ensure she was receiving the proper care. But I also knew I had to trust and support the paramedics. She was admitted to the hospital, where it was determined she’d experienced a transient ischemic attack.

When the lines get blurred

When we see our parent, child, spouse, or sibling's well-being potentially jeopardized, we want to intervene.[]

We may ask for additional tests, to see the blood work and radiology results, inquire about consults, and even try to treat problems beyond our expertise and training.

"The lines between family member, caretaker, and physician often become blurred when it comes to a loved one’s medical care."

Kristen Fuller, MD

We may feel obligated to get involved, but to what extent? If your family member is under medical care, it’s your role to be a devoted family member—not a physician.

There are many accounts of physicians who treat their own family members, although they’re often not publicized. As a result, there is very limited research on this topic.

Benefits of your presence

Some physicians—such as the authors of an article published by The New England Journal of Medicine—feel that having a “doctor in the house” can be a positive thing all around.[]

"Family members may benefit; they may avoid the inconvenience and expense of an office visit and gain an especially caring, available expert who can interpret medical language and help them maneuver through medical systems."

La Puma et al.

“Physicians may also benefit; accustomed to caring for patients and surrounded by books, tools, and pharmaceuticals, they may consider attending to ill family members a natural and rewarding opportunity,” they added.

How you can help

Allow the medical staff do their job. We know that HCPs are properly trained to take care of our family members, so we must put our trust in them. Allow them to consult, work up, diagnose and treat without interfering.

If you have questions, ask to hold a family meeting with the attending physician. Second opinions are always welcomed, and you (as a family member) have the right to request one if you feel it’s necessary.

"Address this with humility and grace instead of coming in hot or using your 'power' as a physician."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Imagine being in their shoes (you probably have been). Treating other physicians and their family can be overwhelming for the attending physician. Most likely, you’ve treated another physician or their family member and have experienced the delicate balance of treating your patient and “treating the physician.”

It’s exhausting. Be empathetic to their position.

Take advantage of your healthcare knowledge. As a family member, you can help by translating confusing medical jargon into understandable language, bringing flowers, meals, and activities to the hospital, and helping with daily tasks at home.

As HCPs, we have a wide breadth of knowledge about the healthcare system. Take advantage of this by calling insurance companies, making outpatient appointments, picking up prescriptions, and navigating the murky waters of home health, social workers, or any post-op treatment plans or assisted living accommodations.

Also, empower your loved ones to make their own decisions about end-of-life care by explaining confusing medical jargon such as power of attorney, living will, and code status.

"You can have a positive impact when someone you love is sick—but leave the 'medicine' to the medical staff. Be a caregiver."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Read Next: Real Talk: When your career ruins your personal life

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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