When Doctors Become Patients: How Doctors Navigate Personal Health Care Issues — And What Patients Can Learn

doctors with patientConundrums abound in the health care sector, but one of the most common involves medical professionals’ struggle to take their own advice. Many engage in problematic habits, often while neglecting to receive the targeted care they recommend for their patients.

While many doctors and nurses are reluctant to seek medical care, this is as valuable for them as it is for the patients they serve. If anything, it’s more important; health issues among doctors make medical errors more likely, as verified by a growing body of research.

The concept of doctor as patient is intriguing — and it can tell us a lot about issues that are prevalent throughout the health care system. Keep reading to learn how medical professionals’ experiences as patients guide their everyday work and shape the health care sector as a whole.

The Perils of Self-Diagnosis

In an age of Google, we all think of ourselves, to an extent, as personal doctors, capable of diagnosing ourselves with nothing more than a digital checklist. Doctors can be susceptible to the same tendency, which is harmful even when they know far more about conditions they diagnose.

The American Medical Association (AMA) makes it abundantly clear: doctors should avoid treating themselves or loved ones when at all possible. It is simply too difficult to remain objective when dealing with personal symptoms or working with family members.

The only exception? Emergency situations. When no other source of treatment is available, it is acceptable for doctors to treat themselves and those they love. This is also true, to an extent, of conventional patients with limited medical expertise, as, in urgent situations, lifesaving measures (such as CPR) must be taken as quickly as possible.

In everyday life, however, patients — including patients who are also doctors — would be wise to seek the outside perspective that only an outside medical provider can offer.

The Importance of a Healthy Lifestyle

It’s no secret that cultivating positive habits is key to long-term health and wellness. Primary physicians and nurse practitioners regularly discuss such measures with patients, but many struggle to implement top recommendations in their own lives.

Often, poor habits can be chalked up to stress, with many doctors struggling even more than their patients to develop healthy coping mechanisms. This results in shockingly high rates of drug and alcohol abuse in the medical community, with expert estimates suggesting that anywhere between 10 and 15 percent of physicians and nurses have substance use problems.

Obesity is also common among health care workers, as evidenced by a report published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The study classified 33.1 percent of subjects (all of whom worked in the medical industry) as overweight, with an additional 21.1 percent reaching the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of obesity. Long hours and high stress often prevent these professionals from getting the exercise they need or eating the balanced diets they espouse to their patients.

If medical experts’ struggle to stay healthy is any indication, lifestyle habits cannot just be willed into existence. Rather than rely on willpower, it’s important to seek support from an empowering community. Doctors — just like their patients — are more likely to struggle when they feel alone or unsupported. Accountability may also be required, as many doctors neglect the simple recommendations they regularly make for their patients, such as using statins to address heart disease or following basic guidelines for diabetic care.

When Information Isn’t Enough

Struggles with leading a healthy lifestyle largely stem from a phenomenon discussed in a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research. After examining a huge body of evidence from the Military Health System, the paper’s authors concluded that information alone is not enough to prompt better health decisions or habits at the personal level. After all, if doctors — who are extremely well-informed — cannot be counted on to implement basic health recommendations, how can patients who do not work in the medical field be expected to succeed?

This paper reveals that a widespread doctrine of toughing it out may be, in part, to blame for difficulties in following basic health advice. Hence, the importance of reducing the stigma of seeking help. Burnout must also be addressed, as it stands in the way of positive health outcomes for doctors and patients alike.

Gaining Empathy

Doctors can benefit greatly from behaving as patients — and not simply because the quality of care they receive improves when somebody else is involved. Rather, the experience of stepping into the patient’s shoes lends doctors a greater sense of perspective on the many challenges that today’s patients face. As a result, doctors may become more empathetic. This, in turn, may lead to improved bedside manner and stronger relationships with patients.

In a personal piece for Emergency Physicians Monthly, William Sullivan, DO, JD explains that, after his terrifying experience as a patient, he now tries “to incorporate better explanations into my own practice.” He’s discovered that “patients don’t necessarily want a slew of tests. Often, they just want someone in a white coat to tell them that everything is ok.”

This takeaway can also apply to patients and their loved ones. If a friend or family member is dealing with a major physical or mental health condition, loved ones should consistently show compassion for their suffering. Patients should also show compassion for themselves, for, while their experiences as patients can motivate doctors to express greater empathy, they may ultimately be too caught up in their work to provide the level of solace that some people desire.

Do you suspect that you have suffered as a result of negligence in a medical setting? Accountability is essential — and you can deliver it with help from the right personal injury lawyer. Look to Regan Zambri Long PLLC for insight as you take the next step with your DC medical malpractice case.