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Diagnosed with a chronic illness: Should you tell your patients?

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Physicians are not immune to chronic illness. Those who choose to continue working after being diagnosed with a chronic illness need to decide whether or not to tell their patients. The idea of physicians being a “blank slate” to their patients would be challenged by such self-disclosure. But ignoring an obvious change in the therapeutic space could be detrimental to your patient’s therapy.1 Every patient has his or her own ideas or perceptions about their physician that contribute to how likely they are to continue to engage in therapy or take prescribed medications. Could letting your patients know you have a chronic illness threaten the image they have of you, and potentially jeopardize their treatment?

Physician factors

Once diagnosed with a chronic illness, a physician who previously defined his or her identity as a clinician now must also assume the role of a patient. This transition gives rise to anxiety. Patient encounters may give a physician the opportunity to feel safe to discuss such anxiety.2 However, patients often view their physicians as omnipotent. When their physician admits weakness and vulnerability, that perception may be damaged.3 This damage could manifest as medication nonadherence, missed appointments, or even termination of treatment. A fear of such abandonment may lead a physician to not disclose his or her illness. To avoid discussing this uncomfortable topic, a physician might be more defensive in his or her interactions with the patient.2

Patient factors

Every patient presents with unique characteristics that contribute to the patient–physician relationship. Receiving news that one’s physician has a chronic or severe illness will elicit different reactions in each patient. These reactions will vary depending upon the patient’s pathology, stage of treatment, and background.3 The previous work done between the patient and physician is crucial in predicting the treatment course after the physician discloses that he or she has a chronic illness. Also, patients may notice the physical changes of their physician’s illness. Deciding to disclose—or to not disclose—something that is obvious can elicit feelings of worry, anger, or even triumph in the patient.3


Two patients, two different responses

Dr. T recently was diagnosed with leukemia and has begun to receive treatment. He decides to continue working. Since receiving the diagnosis, he finds himself more anxious. Adding to his anxiety is the question of whether or not he should tell his patients about his diagnosis. He decides to tell 2 of his patients—Mr. G and Ms. N—and receives a drastically different response from each of them.

Mr. G, age 45, has been Dr. T’s patient for 2 years. He is married, has 2 children, and works at a car dealership. Mr. G initially presented for treatment of depressive symptoms after his mother died. Those symptoms were stabilized with medication and supportive therapy. He now is working with Dr. T to cope with the impending loss of his father, who is dying of colon cancer.

Dr. T discloses the news of his illness to Mr. G at their next appointment. Mr. G offers his condolences and speaks about how on one hand, he is sympathetic and wishes to be supportive, but on the other hand, he fears another loss in his life. Mr. G thanks Dr. T for disclosing this news and hopes they can begin to discuss this situation in therapy. He remains compliant with appointments.

Ms. N, age 59, has been Dr. T’s patient for 6 months. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was in her early 20s. She is single, unemployed, lives alone, and lacks social support. Ms. N has a history of multiple hospitalizations. She has a pattern of presenting to an emergency department and asking to be admitted whenever she faces an acute stressor.

Continue to: Ms. N came to Dr. T through another psychiatrist...

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