Stephen Pribut, DPM, a sports medicine podiatrist based in Washington, DC, has had many friends or family members ask him for medical advice. It’s a scenario every doctor will face at one point or another in their careers, and it’s never an easy one.
Pribut received a call from a friend about a sore shoulder from swimming, saying that his doctor had dismissed the potential for a rotator cuff injury. “Months later, images revealed it was a rotator cuff tear and he wanted my advice,” says Pribut.
Not being a shoulder specialist, Pribut limited his input. “I told him to consider a good physical therapist or a shoulder specialist and gave him some alternative strokes for swimming that hopefully wouldn’t aggravate the injury,” he explains.
But he admits some situations are challenging. “I had a relative asking about a third party with an ankle injury. I advised he hold off on using a balance board until things healed, and to make sure he went to see a specialist. Unfortunately, he went to his general practitioner who likely knows nothing about ankle anatomy,” says Pribut.
“I finally saw a photo which revealed swelling higher up on the ankle and no evidence of a hematoma — much lower than we would see in an ankle ligament injury. I would like him to see a sports podiatrist or foot and ankle orthopedist, but now I have to stay calm when the advice isn’t followed,” he says.
Most doctors deal with the “curbside consult,” many times over, and most, according to a recent Medscape survey, will dole it out. When asked, “Do you give medical advice to your friends?” 96% of respondents answered yes.
Yazan Abou-Ismail, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of hematology at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, has often faced questions from friends and family, particularly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “How you respond is something all physicians need to analyze carefully,” he says. “I get questions on a regular basis, but this greatly increased with COVID.”
“Sharing general information is okay, and it’s even a requirement that we educate on such topics,” says Abou-Ismail. “But if someone knows they have COVID, for instance, and wants advice on how to proceed, it’s important to send them to their primary care physician for an evaluation rather than give them instructions on care.”
Abou-Ismail says that most “curbside consulting” equates to lack of an ethical follow-up. “If you gave medical advice without having assessed them, you’re lacking the medical history, a physical exam, and you should not be giving advice,” he says. “This applies to follow-ups, too.”
Throughout the pandemic, Abou-Ismail’s requests for advice on COVID even extended to online inquiries, often from strangers. “This is not a place to do a formal assessment,” he reminds. “But there are certain types of advice you can offer appropriately.”
Abou-Ismail considers safe advice to be simple public health messages that stay far out of specifics. Things like “don’t smoke,” or “eat a healthy diet,” and “get enough sleep,” fall into this safety zone. Even, “What is XYZ disease?” or “How do COVID vaccines work?” are topics he says he answers comfortably.
“But telling someone you need a specific treatment for a condition is inappropriate,” he explains. “This is a general way of practicing medicine — your advice should never venture into the potential of doing harm.”
This approach is exactly in line with legal advice, according to Jeff Caesar Chukwuma, Esq., founder and senior partner at Chukwuma Law Group, PA, Miami, Florida. “It doesn’t mean that doctors should never give medical advice to friends or family, but if they do, they should make sure to take several precautions to protect both themselves and their family and friends,” he says.
When the request for medical advice from an acquaintance migrates into areas in which a physician is not a specialist, sharing recommendations gets even trickier — and more ethically questionable.
Says Chukwuma, “Doctors should avoid giving advice in areas outside their area of expertise to lower the possibility of providing erroneous or harmful information,” he says.
How to Stay Safe When Asked for Advice
The American Medical Association (AMA) has weighed in on the topic. In the Code of Medical Ethics Opinion 1.2.1, the AMA states that, “Treating oneself or a member of one’s own family poses several challenges for physicians, including concerns about professional objectivity, patient autonomy, and informed consent.”
What about friends or acquaintances, however?
Even so, some respondents voiced their concerns with the scenario. Responses like, “Due to ethics, I would prefer they go and get first, second, and third opinions,” and “Usually the medical advice is very basic first aid (often mental health first aid), and if it’s anything remotely more complicated, I direct them to the appropriate provider.”
The AMA places advising friends in the same basket as advising and treating family members or oneself. In an article appearing in the AMA Journal of Ethics, Horacio Hojman, MD, assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts, weighed in: “First and foremost, patients deserve objectivity from their doctors. When a physician is emotionally involved with a patient, that physician’s objectivity can be called into question.”
Why is medical advice so thorny when dealing with friends or relatives?
In some cases, a physician might not ask a friend relevant personal questions about his or her medical history, for instance. Or the friend might not want to share details with the doctor. In either case, the lack of information exchange can lead to improper advice.
The issue of giving medical advice to friends, family, and acquaintances can also wade into legal territory. “Personally or professionally, trust is the decisive factor that puts us at ease with the people we surround ourselves with,” says Chukwuma. “Nowhere is this truer than in medicine, where we approach doctors with some of the most sensitive matters in our lives and entrust our care to them, especially when the physician in question is a close friend or family member.”
Chukwuma points out that while there are few strict legal prohibitions against doctors providing care or advice to family and friends, the AMA’s code of ethics states that such action should be reserved for rare situations, such as emergency settings or isolated settings where there is no other qualified physician available, or for minor, not long-term problems.
This was part of the equation for Pribut when helping his mother navigate her treatment for breast cancer. “With close relatives, offering advice and help can be very hard,” he says.
“This is to protect both patients and doctors,” says Chukwuma. “Although seeking advice from a family member or friend who is a doctor may be more convenient for a patient, they run the risk of receiving inadequate care by not going in for a formal medical visit complete with tests, medical examination, and follow-up care.”
Chukwuma offers guidance on how to share medical advice ethically and legally with family, friends, and acquaintances. “First, as much as possible, speak to general medical facts and knowledge rather than comment directly on the patient’s particular situation,” he says. “In the absence of thorough examination and tests, the doctor’s knowledge of a patient’s condition is limited, therefore, you should take care not to provide seemingly definitive answers on that patient’s unique condition in situations where they can’t rely on data to back up their advice and recommendations.”
The AMA’s Journal of Ethics article shares these tips for staying on the right side of the ethical line when dealing with friends and family members:
Offer other forms of assistance — this might help a friend find the right qualified physician, as Pribut tends to do. Maybe help in navigating the sometimes-confusing healthcare system.
Don’t hesitate in an emergency — the old “is there a doctor onboard,” scenario on a plane when someone is in distress is a perfectly acceptable, and recommended, time to step in, even if it is a friend or family member.
Pribut, a long-time veteran of the tricky medical waters involving friends and family, has this to offer: “Be cautious and always stay in the realm of what you know,” he says. “Always encourage people to seek an opinion from a qualified doctor. Help them find a reputable doctor if that’s useful.”
Chukwuma adds also that doctors should stand firm when pushed by a friend or family member, especially when offering advice, even if it’s in the form of general education. “The doctor should make it clear to the family member or friend that their advice in no way takes the place of actual treatment or examination by a medical professional and that, if need be, the patient should seek formal medical help from another doctor, ideally one not related to or friends with the patient,” he says.
“By taking these steps, doctors can still be involved in the care of their friends and family without potentially putting the sleeves or their loved ones at risk.”
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