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Why You Should NOT Treat Patients Like Family


One of the most memorable moments I remember from medical school was when one of my family medicine attendings told me

One of the most memorable moments I remember from medical school was when one of my family medicine attendings told me "If you treat your patients like family, you'll do alright." Since then, I've gone through clinical clerkships, survived internship and now on my way to becoming an interventional radiologist. As I reflect on all the years in between, I realize I do indeed treat my patients like family - although not in the way you would imagine...


I have a decent sized family, not huge by American standards, but full of different characters. Let me share a few of my family members with you.

The overly-involved mom - my mother was the prototypical tiger mom which means not only does she have very high standards for me, she also tend to get a little too interested in how I live my life. I love her dearly but I rarely ask for her opinion on anything of substance for the fear that she'll just take over. For example, when I excitedly told her I scored in the 96th percentile on my MCAT exam, her response was "why were there 4% of the people who scored higher?" And she immediately launched into attack mode trying to plan out daily study plans for when I retake the exam.

Patient correlate - know any patients who try to tell you how to do your job down to every last detail?

The contrarian dad - my stepfather is a good man, but he loves to play devil's advocate. Often it feels like he prefers to argue because he enjoys confrontation rather than actually care about the topic of discussion. Case in point, I once repeated back to him his exact words: "so what you're telling me is this [insert quote here]..." and he immediately began to argue against himself!

Patient correlate - know any patients who try to point out why nothing you suggest would work but can't seem to offer any coherent suggestions of their own?

The nagging aunt - my aunt is awesome. She's caring, a good cook and an excellent purveyor of gossip at family gatherings which makes her a lot of fun. But one word I will never use to describe her would be "succinct." Once I went grocery shopping with her for pasta sauce and I made the mistake of asking her a question. I don't even remember what the question was, but one hour later I left the grocery store with over $50 in groceries and no pasta sauce!

Patient correlate - know any patients who seemingly won't stop stop talking?

The stoic grandpa - my grandfather is a man of few words. He keeps to himself and nothing ever seems to faze him. One can argue that he is overly stoic. He once walked into the ER on a broken hip and didn't tell anyone about it. We only found out after the surgery!

Patient correlate - know any patients from whom taking a history is like pulling teeth?

The cousin who only shows up to ask you for money - do you have one of these? I have a cousin who only contacts my mother when he needs financial help. Let me just say - it gets old very quickly. After years of abuse, my mother finally cut him off last year.

Patient correlate - my EM colleagues would understand, does your ER have any frequent flyers?


I hope after meeting my family, you understand why I would not want to treat my patients like family. Frankly, there are days where all I want to do is to have nothing to do with them! If you have a family that looks anything like mine, I don't think you should either. But I do agree with the spirit of the statement - treat your patients with empathy. How about this?

Treat your patients like how you want your doctor to treat you.

Thoughts and comments? Reach out to me at http://futureproofmd.com/.

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