Don’t cross the friends line with patients


When you became a doctor, you may have moved to one city for med school, another for residency, and a third to be an attending. All that moving can make it hard to maintain friendships. Factor in the challenges from the pandemic, and a physician’s life can be lonely. So, when a patient invites you for coffee or a game of pickleball, do you accept? For almost one-third of the physicians who responded to the Medscape Physician Friendships: The Joys and Challenges 2022, the answer might be yes.

About 29% said they develop friendships with patients. However, a lot depends on the circumstances. As one physician in the report said: “I have been a pediatrician for 35 years, and my patients have grown up and become productive adults in our small, rural, isolated area. You can’t help but know almost everyone.”

As the daughter of a cardiologist, Nishi Mehta, MD, a radiologist and founder of the largest physician-only Facebook group in the country, grew up with that small-town-everyone-knows-the-doctor model.

“When I was a kid, I’d go to the mall, and my friends and I would play a game: How long before a patient [of my dad’s] comes up to me?” she said. At the time, Dr. Mehta was embarrassed, but now she marvels that her dad knew his patients so well that they would recognize his daughter in crowded suburban mall.

In other instances, a physician may develop a friendly relationship after a patient leaves their care. For example, Leo Nissola, MD, now a full-time researcher and immunotherapy scientist in San Francisco, has stayed in touch with some of the patients he treated while at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.

Dr. Nissola said it was important to stay connected with the patients he had meaningful relationships with. “It becomes challenging, though, when a former patient asks for medical advice.” At that moment, “you have to be explicitly clear that the relationship has changed.”

A hard line in the sand

The blurring of lines is one reason many doctors refuse to befriend patients, even after they are no longer treating them. The American College of Physicians Ethics Manual advises against treating anyone with whom you have a close relationship, including family and friends.

“Friendships can get in the way of patients being honest with you, which can interfere with medical care,” Dr. Mehta said. “If a patient has a concern related to something they wouldn’t want you to know as friends, it can get awkward. They may elect not to tell you.”

And on the flip side, friendship can provide a view into your private life that you may not welcome in the exam room.

“Let’s say you go out for drinks [with a patient], and you’re up late, but you have surgery the next day,” said Brandi Ring, MD, an ob.gyn. and the associate medical director at the Center for Children and Women in Houston. Now, one of your patients knows you were out until midnight when you had to be in the OR at 5:00 a.m.

Worse still, your relationship could color your decisions about a patient’s care, even unconsciously. It can be hard to maintain objectivity when you have an emotional investment in someone’s well-being.

“We don’t necessarily treat family and friends to the standards of medical care,” said Dr. Ring. “We go above and beyond. We might order more tests and more scans. We don’t always follow the guidelines, especially in critical illness.”

For all these reasons and more, the ACP advises against treating friends.


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