What Do You Do When Your Loved One Is Ill? The Line between Physician and Family Member

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Conventional wisdom and professional ethics generally dictate that physicians should avoid doctoring family members because of potential conflicts of interest. Nevertheless, cross-sectional surveys find that the practice is commonplace.

Physicians have unique opportunities to influence their family member’s care because they possess knowledge and status within the health care system; however, when physicians participate in the care of family members, they must not lose objectivity and confuse their personal and professional roles.

Because health care systems are complicated, medical information is difficult to understand, and medical errors are common, it can be a great relief for families to have someone “on the inside” who is accessible and trustworthy. Yet, the benefits of becoming involved in a loved one’s care are accompanied by risks, especially when a physician takes action that a nonphysician would be incapable of performing. Except for convenience, most if not all of the benefits of getting involved can be realized by physician–family members acting as a family member or an advocate rather than as a physician.

Rules about what is or what is not appropriate for physician–family members are important but insufficient to guide physicians in every circumstance. Physician–family members can ask themselves, “What could I do in this situation if I did not have a medical degree?” and consider avoiding acts that require a medical license.

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