Bioethics Blogs

When the Patient is One of Our Own

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

A physician walks into the break room, looking forward to a few minutes of downtime with a cup of stale coffee and some space to breathe. The minute he opens the door he knows something is wrong as the floor is covered in blood. A nurse has fallen over, smacked her head on a table and lays unconscious, bleeding on the ground.

“If it was a patient, I would know exactly what to do,” said one of her colleagues. “But she’s one of ours, I just stopped because the simple decisions of what to do next did not come so easily.”

Much has been written about physicians who become patients. These range from Oliver Sack’s A Leg to Stand On, to OpEds in the New York Times, to books written by bioethicists, to books about bioethicists as patients. Two papers from the early 1980s talked how the physician become patient is challenging because the physician has a specific role identity, may be inflexible in accepting the patient condition, and has trouble putting him or herself under the control of colleagues.

Other studies have found that physicians recommend different treatments for themselves than for non-health care professional patients. Even as a graduate student who underwent several months of diagnostics for a condition (that was found to be benign), I noticed that I was treated differently, spoken to differently, and offered a different range of options once medical personnel learned that I was “a student in a medical school.”

But what happens for the care provider who is now performing surgery on a colleague or taking care of that person at the bedside.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.