Should You Tell Your Doctor That You're a Doctor?

Sharon Worcester

November 09, 2021

Should doctors seeking healthcare disclose that they are a doctor? 

The question drew spirited debate when urologist Ashley Winter, MD, made a simple, straightforward request on Twitter:

"If you are a doctor & you come to an appointment please tell me you are a doctor, not because I will treat you differently but because it's easier to speak in jargon."

https://twitter.com/AshleyGWinter/status/1448445058026401792

She later added, "This doesn't' mean I would be less patient-focused or emotional with a physician or other [healthcare worker]. Just means that, instead of saying 'you will have a catheter draining your urine to a bag,' I can say, 'you will have a Foley.' "

The Tweet followed an encounter with a patient who told Winter that he was a doctor only after she had gone to some length explaining a surgical procedure in lay terms.

"I explained the surgery, obviously assuming he was an intelligent adult, but using fully layman's terms," she told Medscape Medical News. The patient then told her that he was a doctor. "I guess I felt this embarrassment — I wouldn't have treated him differently, but I just could have discussed the procedure with him in more professional terms." 

"To some extent, it was my own fault," she commented in an interview. "I didn't take the time to ask [about his work] at the beginning of the consultation, but that's a fine line, also," added Winter, a urologist and sexual medicine physician in Portland, Oregon.

"You know that patient is there because they want care from you and it's not necessarily always at the forefront of importance to be asking them what they do for their work, but alternatively, if you don't ask then you put them in this position where they have to find a way to go ahead and tell you."

Several people chimed in on the thread to voice their thoughts on the matter. Some commiserated with Winter's experience:

"I took care of a retired cardiologist in the hospital as a second-year resident and honest to god he let me ramble on 'explaining' his echo result and never told me. I found out a couple days later and wanted to die," posted @MaddyAndrewsMD.

Another recalled a similarly embarrassing experience when she "went on and on" discussing headaches with a patient whose husband "was in the corner smirking."

"They told my attending later [that the] husband was a retired FM doc who practiced medicine longer than I've been alive. I wanted to die," posted @JSinghDO.

Many on the thread, though, were doctors and other healthcare professionals speaking as patients. Some said they didn't want to disclose their status as a healthcare provider because they felt it affected the care they received.

For example, @drhelenrainford commented: "In my experience my care is less 'caring' when they know I am a [doctor]. I get spoken to like they are discussing a patient with me — no empathy just facts and difficult results just blurted out without consideration. Awful awful time as an inpatient …but that's another story!"

@Dr_B_Ring said: "Nope – You and I speak different jargon – I would want you to speak to me like a human that doesn't know your jargon. My ego would get in the way of asking about the acronyms I don't know if you knew I was a fellow physician."

Conversely, @lozzlemcfozzle said: "Honestly I prefer not to tell my Doctors — I've found people skip explanations assuming I 'know,' or seem a little nervous when I tell them!"

Others said they felt uncomfortable — pretentious, even — in announcing their status, or worried that they might come across as expecting special care.

"It's such a tough needle to thread. Want to tell people early but not come off as demanding special treatment, but don't want to wait too long and it seems like a trap," said @MDaware.

Twitter user @MsBabyCatcher wrote: "I have a hard time doing this because I don't want people to think I'm being pretentious or going to micromanage/dictate care."

Replying to @MsBabyCatcher, @RedStethoscope wrote: "I used to think this too until I got [very poor] care a few times, and was advised by other doctor moms to 'play the doctor card.' I have gotten better/more compassionate care by making sure it's clear that I'm a physician (which is junk, but here we are)."

Several of those responding used the words "tricky" and "awkward," suggesting a common theme for doctors presenting as patients.

"I struggle with this. My 5-year-old broke her arm this weekend, we spent hours in the ED, of my own hospital, I never mentioned it because I didn't want to get preferential care. But as they were explaining her type of fracture, it felt awkward and inefficient." said @lindsay_petty.

To avoid the awkwardness, a number of respondents said they purposefully use medical jargon to open up a conversation rather than just offering up the information that they are a doctor.

Still others offered suggestions on how to broach the subject more directly when presenting as a patient:

'"Just FYI I'm a X doc but I'm here because I really want your help and advice!" That's what I usually do," wrote @drcakefm.

@BeeSting14618 Tweeted: "I usually say 'I know some of this but I'm here because I want YOUR guidance. Also I may ask dumb questions, and I'll tell you if a question is asking your opinion or making a request.'"

A few others injected a bit of humor: "I just do the 14-part handshake that only doctors know. Is that not customary?" quipped @Branmiz25.

"Ah yes, that transmits the entire [history of present illness]," replied Winter.

Jokes aside, the topic is obviously one that touched on a shared experience among healthcare providers, Winter commented. The Twitter thread she started just "blew up."

That's typically a sign that the Tweet is relatable for a lot of people, she said.

"It's definitely something that all of us as care providers and as patients understand. It's a funny awkward thing that can really change an interaction, so we probably all feel pretty strongly about our experiences related to that," she added.

The debate begs the question: Is there a duty or ethical reason to disclose?

Dr Charlotte Blease

"I definitely think it is very reasonable to disclose that one is a medical professional to another doctor," medical ethicist Charlotte Blease, PhD, told Medscape Medical News. "There are good reasons to believe doing so might make a difference to the quality of communication and transparency."

If the ability to use medical terminology or jargon more freely improves patient understanding, autonomy, and shared decision-making, then it may be of benefit, said Blease, a Keane OpenNotes Scholar at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts.

"Since doctors should strive to communicate effectively with every patient and to respect their unique needs and level of understanding, then I see no reason to deny that one is a medic," she added."

Knowing how to share the information is another story.

"This is something that affects all of us as physicians — we're going to be patients at some point, right?" Winter commented. "But I don't think how to disclose that is something that was ever brought up in my medical training."

"Maybe there should just be a discussion of this one day when people are in medical school — maybe in a professionalism course — to broach this topic or look at if there's any literature on outcomes related to disclosure of status or what are best practices," she suggested. 

Sharon Worcester is an award-winning medical journalist at MDedge News, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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