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I’m not hesitant to tell patients about my kids or if I’m having a bad day.

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Can We Talk? Physicians Get Personal With Patients

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Can We Talk? Physicians Get Personal With Patients

By Tom A. Augello, CRICO

Related to: Communication, Primary Care, Insight into Risks of Ambulatory Care, Other Specialties, Physician Voice

My car trouble. Your daughter’s terrible report card. Is it OK for clinicians and patients to share their personal issues with each other?

Yes, in fact it’s necessary, say some CRICO-insured physicians.

Christopher Lathan, MD, is a thoracic oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. During a recent conversation with a patient where she shared her difficulties at home with an adult son,  Lathan shared with her that a member of his own family once got into similar trouble.

The patient learned that he understood her obstacles, and the interaction gave Dr. Lathan a professional advantage:

"The more you know about your patients and where they are from, the more their actions can make sense to you. That’s when you understand that noncompliance might not be noncompliance. Maybe it’s a medical literacy issue. Maybe it’s not noncompliance, but they are unsafe at home."

Time is the enemy for primary care physician David Ting, MD, who sees patients at the Massachusetts General Hospital Everett Center. Even though he thinks he’d be a better physician if he had unstructured time to talk with every patient, his caseload does not allow it.

Still, his approach to his patients is, "I want them to know me, and I want to know them."

Patients understand this need as much as anyone. “Suzanne,” the mother of a former Dana-Farber patient, remembers how therapeutic it was to connect one night with an off-duty nurse as her daughter was dying.

“She came in, and she just sat, and we talked, and we talked as mothers,” she says. “And we talked about things our kids did, and she told me how much she admired me and the way I was helping my daughter to live as much of a normal life as I could. That was one of the biggest gifts that she could have given me.”

Another mother of a Boston patient with renal failure considered a lawsuit after her daughter died unexpectedly in rehab. But “Serena” didn’t cast about to name every provider who treated her daughter.

During one of her child’s many crises, one physician had earned her trust after she saw his tears of joy when kidney function returned to normal.

“I know you have to have a tough skin to a point or you get involved with every patient that you operate on,” Serena says. “But when a family is hurting so much, I mean, I don’t know how you can’t just give them a hug. Just to show you’re human and that you do care.”

Dr. Ting says he understands the need for professional boundaries. Still, even during small, day-to-day interactions, “I’m not hesitant to tell patients about my kids and tell them if I’m having a bad day or struggling with something. I’m quick to apologize, if I’ve dropped something, just so they know I’m a real person and I’m human and that allows them to open up to me.”


February 1, 2012
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