Doctors' Kids Hear the Darnedest Things

Brandon Cohen


February 19, 2019

What do the children of physicians learn from their parents? How should medical information be presented to them? Are doctors' kids, in some respects, growing up too fast?

Image from Shutterstock

A recent poignant article described the experiences Dr Heather Thompson Buum, whose diagnosis of breast cancer brought with it the startling realization of just how much medical information her young children had absorbed. Her candid reflection on that experience with her own children led to much discussion in the comments from a wide variety of Medscape's readers.

All were sympathetic toward and supportive of Thompson. The discussion ranged from how children deal with a parent's health problems to the unique perspective that the children of healthcare professionals have about medical information.

Most agreed that it was important to be straight with kids about medical matters. A pathologist wrote:

My husband and I are both doctors, and we always tried to inform our children as honestly as we could of every matter dealing with our family's health. That helped a lot with their understanding and dealing with issues that ranged from vaccines to the passing away of grandparents and our own health problems.

A dual-physician family found that knowledge seeped to the younger generation, often without formal instruction. A urologist wrote:

Kids assemble the puzzle pieces well. My wife and I are both physicians. When our 4-year-old daughter was in preschool, she was asked what she was doing. She had on a surgical mask and hat. She was holding an empty paper towel holder to her right eye with the other end pointed to her stuffed animal, Pink B Bear's pelvis. "Pink Bear is having a bladder problem, and I am looking in his bladder to see if he has any tumors."

A registered nurse agreed:

Never think that even very small children do not pay attention to what you say while they are in the room. My own grandchildren, who are two and four, have asked me about things that I doubt seriously their parents realized they had picked up on...I think we do need to be honest with children.

A primary care physician reminded us that it was a mistake to underestimate children but also saw reason for concern:

Most children are smarter than adults give them credit for, but many are destroyed by being sent to institutions that indoctrinate instead of educate!

A pathologist provided the perspective of one who had grown up in a medical family:

I was a child of a two-physician family. By the time I was six, I was able to identify and bring the correct anti-hypertensive medicines to my mother. Needless to say, I went on to study medicine and am now a pathologist, married to a gastroenterologist. And two of our three children are doctors.

But a pediatrician from a similar background was ambivalent:

I'm sure [some] kids (like me) who had a doctor as a parent will retain doctor talk if they have an interest in medicine, but I know a lot of doctors' kids who don't like the medical talk.

Another healthcare professional reasoned that it was natural to expect physicians' children to be capable of understanding grown-up concepts:

The children of an intelligent couple are almost sure to also be quite intelligent. They should therefore be treated as such. Speak to them as you would an adult but be willing, even eager, to explain things and give them background so they will truly understand what you said. They will make you proud!

But an anesthesiologist wondered if it was modern media that made contemporary children so quick with medical facts:

I'm could have no parents in medicine and still come up with a [strong understanding of medical issues.] [There are] so many TV shows and movies where they could hear this stuff, not to mention friends' parents, their own grandparents. "I just finished two months of chemo. Can I get 1000 likes?"

A registered nurse revealed a slightly different point of view:

I am the daughter of a woman who went to nursing school while I was in high school, and I used to help her study for tests by quizzing her on her notes. Once I was old enough for college, I decided to become a nurse and it was surprising how much those study sessions with my mother had taught me. My own children, with a nurse for both mother and grandmother, have often been exposed to shop talk over the years. They have astounded physicians many times in their lives with some of the things they say.

An obstetrician offered an experience with an older child:

Having a child/young adult in college at the time of a breast cancer diagnosis posed a similar but different dilemma. We made sure he was the first to know and kept him apprised of my condition. However, with him being in college, he felt left in the dark at times. Communication is very important.

A urologist pointed out that children were not the only ones affected by proximity to a physician:

I already caught my wife, a literary proofreader with no medical background at all...talking to her friends and saying stuff like "and does your pain spread somewhere? Does it increase or decrease with some action you do or with the time of the day?" And I wonder, is she aware that she is doing an anamnesis?

The final word goes to an internist who summed up the beauty of children:

It's amazing how it affects us adults when we are met with the simple, humble, loving opinions of a child. It's instructive how children cut through all the "noise" and filter out garbage when they open their mouths to make a statement of the heart.

We hope you will share your experiences with us via the comments section.

The full article can be found on Medscape.

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