Don't Cross the Friends Line With Patients

Debbie Koenig

January 26, 2023

When you became a doctor, you may have moved to one city for med school, another for residency, and a third to be an attending. All that moving can make it hard to maintain friendships. Factor in the challenges from the pandemic, and a physician's life can be lonely. So, when a patient invites you for coffee or a game of pickleball, do you accept? For almost one third of the physicians who responded to Medscape's Physician Friendships: The Joys and Challenges 2022, the answer might be yes.

Twenty-nine percent said they develop friendships with patients. However, a lot depends on the circumstances. As one physician in the report says, "I have been a pediatrician for 35 years, and my patients have grown up and become productive adults in our small, rural, isolated area. You can't help but know almost everyone."

As the daughter of a cardiologist, Nishi Mehta, MD, a radiologist and founder of the largest physician-only Facebook group in the country, grew up with that small-town-everyone-knows-the-doctor model.

"When I was a kid, I'd go to the mall, and my friends and I would play a game: How long before a patient [of my dad's] comes up to me?" she said. At the time, Mehta was embarrassed, but now she marvels that her dad knew his patients so well that they would recognize his daughter in crowded suburban mall.

In other instances, a physician may develop a friendly relationship after a patient leaves their care. For example, Leo Nissola, MD, now a full-time researcher and immunotherapy scientist in San Francisco, has stayed in touch with some of the patients he treated while at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Nissola says it was important to stay connected with the patients he had meaningful relationships with. "It becomes challenging, though, when a former patient asks for medical advice." At that moment, "you have to be explicitly clear that the relationship has changed."

A Hard Line in the Sand

The blurring of lines is one reason many doctors refuse to befriend patients, even after they are no longer treating them. The American College of Physicians Ethics Manual advises against treating anyone with whom you have a close relationship, including family and friends.

"Friendships can get in the way of patients being honest with you, which can interfere with medical care," Mehta said. "If a patient has a concern related to something they wouldn't want you to know as friends, it can get awkward. They may elect not to tell you."

And on the flip side, friendship can provide a view into your private life that you may not welcome in the exam room.

"Let's say you go out for drinks [with a patient], and you're up late, but you have surgery the next day," said Brandi Ring, MD, an ob/gyn and the associate medical director at the Center for Children and Women in Houston. Now, one of your patients knows you were out until midnight when you had to be in the OR at 5:00 AM.

Worse still, your relationship could color your decisions about a patient's care, even unconsciously. It can be hard to maintain objectivity when you have an emotional investment in someone's well-being.

"We don't necessarily treat family and friends to the standards of medical care," says Ring. "We go above and beyond. We might order more tests and more scans. We don't always follow the guidelines, especially in critical illness."

For all these reasons and more, the American College of Physicians advises against treating friends.

Put Physician Before Friend

But adhering to those guidelines can lead physicians to make some painful decisions. Cutting yourself off from the possibility of friendship is never easy, and Medscape's report found that physicians tend to have fewer friends than the average American.

"Especially earlier in my practice, when I was a young parent, and I would see a lot of other young parents in the same stage in life, I'd think, 'In other circumstances, I would be hanging out at the park with this person,' " said Kathleen Rowland, MD, a family medicine physician and vice chair of education in the Department of Family Medicine at Rush University in Chicago. "But the hard part is, the doctor-patient relationship always comes first."

To a certain extent, one's specialty may determine the feasibility of becoming friends with a patient. While Mehta has never done so, as a radiologist, she doesn't usually see patients repeatedly. Likewise, a young gerontologist may have little in common with his octogenarian patients. And an older pediatrician is not in the same life stage as his patients' sleep-deprived new parents, possibly making them less attractive friends.

However, practicing family medicine is all about long-term physician-patient relationships. Getting to know patients and their families over many years can lead to a certain intimacy. Rowland says that while a wonderful part of being a physician is getting that unique trust whereby patients tell you all sorts of things about their lives, she's never gone down the friendship path.

"There's the assumption I'll take care of someone for a long period of time, and their partner and their kids, maybe another generation or two," Rowland said. "People really do rely on that relationship to contribute to their health."

Worse, nowadays, when people may be starved for connection, many patients want to feel emotionally close and cared for by their doctor, so it'd be easy to cross the line. While patients deserve a compassionate, caring doctor, the physician is left to walk the line between those boundaries. Rowland says, "It's up to the clinician to say, 'My role is as a doctor. You deserve caring friends, but I have to order your mammogram and your blood counts. My role is different.' "

Friendly but Not Friends

It can be tricky to navigate the boundary between a cordial, warm relationship with a patient and that patient inviting you to their daughter's wedding.

"People may mistake being pleasant and friendly for being friends," said Larry Blosser, MD, chief medical officer at Central Ohio Primary Care in Westerville, Ohio. In his position, he sometimes hears from patients who have misunderstood their relationship with a doctor in the practice. When that happens, he advises the physician to consider the persona they're presenting to the patient. If you're overly friendly, there's the potential for confusion, but you can't be aloof and cold, he says.

Maintaining that awareness helps to prevent a patient's offhand invitation to catch a movie or go on a hike. And verbalizing it to your patients can make your relationship clear from the get-go.

"I tell patients we're a team. I'm the captain, and they're my MVP. When the match is over, whatever the results, we're done," said Karenne Fru, MD, PhD, a fertility specialist at Oma Fertility Atlanta. Making deep connections is essential to her practice, so Fru structures her patient interactions carefully. "Infertility is such an isolating experience. While you're with us, we care about what's going on in your life, your pets, and your mom's chemo. We need mutual trust for you to be compliant with the care."

However, that approach won't work when you see patients regularly, as with family practice or specialties that see the same patients repeatedly throughout the year. In those circumstances, the match is never over but one in which the onus is on the physician to establish a friendly yet professional rapport without letting your self-interest, loneliness, or lack of friends interfere.

"It's been a very difficult couple of years for a lot of us. Depending on what kind of clinical work we do, some of us took care of healthy people that got very sick or passed away," Rowland tells Medscape. "Having the chance to reconnect with people and reestablish some of that closeness, both physical and emotional, is going to be good for us."

Just continue conveying warm, trusting compassion for your patients without blurring the friend lines.

Debbie Koenig is a writer specializing in health and nutrition, and the author of the cookbook Parents Need to Eat Too: Nap-Friendly Recipes, One-Handed Meals & Time-Saving Kitchen Tricks for New Parents (William Morrow). Her work has appeared in publications including Diabetic Living, Cooking Light, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Best Food Writing anthology.

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