When Physicians Become Patients: Challenges in Seeking Health Care

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From work conflicts to stigma to cultural norms in the medical profession, many clinicians prefer to hide or ignore their illnesses.
From work conflicts to stigma to cultural norms in the medical profession, many clinicians prefer to hide or ignore their illnesses.

Many physicians try to avoid a doctor's visit at all costs. Even when they know they need help, there are many barriers keeping them from making that call — from work conflicts to stigma to cultural norms in the medical profession, many clinicians prefer to hide or ignore their illnesses.

“One of the biggest fears is loss of livelihood… and lack of confidentiality,” said Clare Gerada, medical director of the practitioner health program at Riverside Medical Centre in London, in an interview with Medical Bag. “These fears are legitimate.”

In an article published in BMJ, Dr Girarda outlined the structural and psychological barriers holding physicians back from seeking help. Not only does a physician's schedule often allow little breathing room, the idea of colleagues or supervisors finding out about an illness can be terrifying. From the very beginning of medical school, physicians feel pressure — and put pressure on each other — to strive for perfection.

“My theory is [that] after being in the culture of what's taught in medical school, a hidden curriculum, [doctors] deny their vulnerability, work beyond hours they need to work,” said Dr Gerada. “If [they are] unwell, [they] carry on working despite being unwell.”

Despite these structural and psychological factors, Dr Gerada points out that if you can get physicians into treatment, they get better. Physicians assuming the role of patients should acknowledge the fact they are physicians, but not exaggerate this. Physicians who are caring for other physicians should treat them as they would any other patient and not allow them to take control of their illness. They should also help ensure privacy.

“It's important to keep working hard to get doctors in a confidential space to get better,” said Dr Gerada.

Reference

Wessely A, Gerada C. When doctors need treatment: an anthropological approach to why doctors make bad patients. BMJ  2013;347:f6644

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