Do You Keep Seeing Patients When You're Sick?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW


March 27, 2014

In This Article


When Hippocrates urged doctors to "do no harm," he likely wasn't thinking about the physician with the hacking cough and runny nose who should have stayed home instead of seeing patients in the office.

But sick physicians seeing patients happens far too often. Ronald M. Wyatt, MD, MHA, recalls when, years ago, he dragged himself to work when he was in the throes of the flu. "I had a temperature of 102, I was shaking, and even the hair on my head was hurting," he recalls. "But I was dutifully seeing patients and writing out prescriptions. My nurse tried to get me to go home, but I said, 'No, let me lie on the floor.' Finally, an attending physician insisted on driving me home."

Dr. Wyatt, who today is Medical Director of the Division of Healthcare Improvement at The Joint Commission, says that this is still a common scenario. "If 'absenteeism' means being out when you should be in, then 'presenteeism' is being in when you should be out -- meaning when you're ill. And presenteeism is a major and serious problem among physicians."

In fact, many argue that presenteeism is downright rampant in the medical community.

"My colleagues and I surveyed physicians, residents, and interns. We found that almost 100% of respondents agreed they would come to work with a cold, and over a third said they would come in with the flu," says Heather Reisinger, PhD, Investigator at the Center for Comprehensive Access and Delivery Research and Evaluation (CADRE) and Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City. "You might even say that presenteeism itself is an epidemic," she adds.

Why would physicians ignore what they tell their patients -- to stay home when sick?

There are several reasons: the perception that you'll be considered "weak" or not pulling your weight; the fact that in private practice, if you don't see patients, you don't make money for that day; or the knowledge that if you don't come in, it disrupts the schedules of your colleagues and administrators with whom you work.

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