When the Doctor is the Patient

Sometimes we forget that doctors are just like everyday people. They have families, they are members of parent/teacher organizations (PTOs), they help their children with school projects and homework, and they, in many cases, are still repaying school loans. You name it, and yes, the doctor has probably experienced it. So too is the case with sickness. Doctors do get ill, and are seen in the local office, emergency room, and hospitals.

One of the first decisions the doctor-patient must make is whether to reveal that he or she is a physician to the healthcare personnel. This decision is not taken lightly, because the doctor, by admitting he/she is a physician, might inadvertently alter the potential physician-patient relationship. The doctor may end up over-assisting in their own health care. The nurses, assistants, and even the attending physician will sometimes assume that the doctor -patient has revealed the entire history concerning the illness (or the most pertinent facts) and might not be as thorough in gathering information for treatment purposes. Or, the hospital workers will assume the doctor-patient knows the protocols and think they will be boring the doctor by giving detailed preventive lectures.

DoctorIf the doctor-patient does not reveal that he or she is a doctor, will this affect their treatment? Yes, it possibly can. First professional courtesy may not be employed. There is a subtle understanding or bonding between doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers that we are all in this together and an extraordinary effort is taken to make sure their colleague is comfortable or getting the best care. This is also true with other professions. Police officers have a spoken and unspoken respect for other officers. Teachers often identify with other educators. The same is true with doctors and their equally hardworking colleagues at the hospital. A doctor not revealing his or her profession might forfeit some perks (e.g., faster service, more attentive staff) that makes the visit a little more pleasant. They would be just like any other patient and perhaps would not receive extras.

Being a doctor-patient is uncomfortable for many reasons: First, no one, including doctors, wants to visualize themselves ill, and to add to this, people assume that doctors should be able to heal themselves. Second, doctors may feel guilty that their patients do not have the option of playing the “doctor card” in situations where the treatment process is moving too slowly. Doctor-patients believe that they should be able to receive adequate care without revealing their profession, but they know that the healthcare system is imperfect, and it bothers them. Thirdly, doctors usually are the ones who call the shots and so it leaves them with a sense of diminished autonomy. Lastly, how will their colleagues respond, and how will the doctor respond to them?

Sometimes, it seems awkward to see the doctor as a patient but if we all remember that physicians have the same joys, want the same rewards, and have the same responsibilities, then it makes what seems like an irony a little more ordinary.

I want others to chime in, especially if you are a healthcare professional. If you have been a patient did you reveal that you were a physician, nurse, or another healthcare professional?


Fromme, E. (2003). Care of the Dying Doctor: On the Other End of the Stethoscope. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 290(15), 2048-2055. DOI: 10.1001/jama.290.15.2048.

Kempainen, R.R., Bartels, D.M., Veach, P.M. (2007). Life on the Receiving End: A Qualitative Analysis of Health Providers??? Illness Narratives. Academic Medicine, 82(2), 207-213. DOI: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31802d9513

KLITZMAN, R. (2006). Views and approaches toward risks and benefits among doctors who become patients. Patient Education and Counseling, 64(1-3), 61-68. DOI: 10.1016/j.pec.2005.11.013

Noble, S., Marie, A.N., Finlay, I. (2008). Challenges faced by palliative care physicians when caring for doctors with advanced cancer. Palliative Medicine, 22(1), 71-76. DOI: 10.1177/0269216307084607


Dr. RD is a medical doctor with experience in clinical research. An author and co-author of publications in peer-reviewed medical journals, her passion is educating patients, and she feels this is one of the most effective ways for disease prevention. She enjoys keeping abreast of the latest studies and events around the world that directly or indirectly impacts the medical field.
See All Posts By The Author