Do You Keep Seeing Patients When You're Sick?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW


March 27, 2014

In This Article

Just When Is a Doctor Really Sick?

What constitutes "illness," anyway? Do you have to be at death's door before you can call in sick? Or is it enough to have a tickle at the back of your throat? In the absence of clear guidelines, physicians are left trying to figure things out for themselves.

"I see patients even when I'm coughing or sneezing," reports a Cincinnati-based psychiatrist. "A sniffle isn't tuberculosis. But I draw the line at fever -- if I have over 100.2°, I stay home."

Another physician, on the other hand, says she doesn't let fever stop her. "I wear a mask and warn everyone not to go near me," she says. "I try to sequester patient charts so that no one will touch a chart that I touched, I wash my hands a lot and use hand sanitizers, and I don't touch doorknobs. I keep as far away from patients as I can when I'm doing a procedure."

Downplaying a fever may seem surprising, but Dr. Ofri has an explanation. "In the scheme of what most physicians see in the course of a day, some don't even think the flu qualifies as an 'illness'. If we're not septic, acidotic, or experiencing chemo-induced neutropenia, we see ourselves as 'healthy' and fit to go into work."

Obviously, contagious diseases like the flu or norovirus directly threaten the health of patients and fellow staff members. But those aren't the only illnesses that pose a threat to patient safety, says Dr. Wyatt. "If you're dehydrated or have severe stomach cramps, back pain, or a migraine, you won't be at your best. I once worked with a resident who was in the process of passing a kidney stone and was still seeing patients. How could he possibly have been clear-headed and competent?"

Physicians who are struggling with their own health problems may make errors or show impaired judgment. They may also rush through an examination so that they can go home sooner. While this sounds innocent enough, a sloppy exam could be the basis of a possible lawsuit if a patient is misdiagnosed as a result and later suffers harm.

"This is not professionalism in medicine," Dr. Wyatt states, "and it endangers patients."

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