When your patient is a physician: Overcoming the challenges

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Physicians’ physical and mental well-being has become a major concern in health care. In the United States, an estimated 300 to 400 physicians die from suicide each year.1 Compared with the general population, the suicide rates for male and female physicians are 1.41 and 2.27 times higher, respectively.2 As psychiatrists, we can play an instrumental role in preserving our colleagues’ mental health. While treating a fellow physician can be rewarding, these situations also can be challenging. Here we describe a few of the challenges of treating physicians, and solutions we can employ to minimize potential pitfalls.

Challenges: How our relationship can affect care

We may view physician-patients as “VIPs” because of their profession, which might lead us to assume they are more knowledgeable than the average patient.1,3 This mindset could result in taking an inadequate history, having an incomplete informed-consent discussion, avoiding or limiting educational discussions, performing an inadequate suicide risk assessment, or underestimating the need for higher levels of care (eg, psychiatric hospitalization).1

We may have difficulty maintaining appropriate professional boundaries due to the relationship (eg, friend, colleague, or mentor) we have established with a physician-patient.3 It may be difficult to establish the usual roles of patient and physician, particularly if we have a professional relationship with a physician-patient that requires routine contact at work. The issue of boundaries can become compounded if there is an emotional component to the relationship, which may make it difficult to discuss sensitive topics.3 A physician-patient may be reluctant to discuss sensitive information due to concerns about the confidentiality of their medical record.3 They also might obtain our personal contact information through work-related networks and use it to contact us about their care.

Solutions: Treat them as you would any other patient

Although physician-patients may have more medical knowledge than other patients, we should avoid showing deference and making assumptions about their knowledge of psychiatric illnesses and treatment. As we would with other patients, we should always1:

  • conduct a thorough evaluation
  • develop a comprehensive treatment plan
  • provide appropriate informed consent
  • adequately assess suicide risk.

We should also maintain boundaries as best we can, while understanding that our professional relationships might complicate this.

We should ask our physician-patients if they have been self-prescribing and/or self-treating.1 We shouldn’t shy away from considering inpatient treatment for physician-patients (when clinically indicated) because of our concern that such treatment might jeopardize their ability to practice medicine. Also, to help decrease barriers to and enhance engagement in treatment, consider recommending treatment options that can take place outside of the physician-patient’s work environment.3

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