“Does This Mole Look Like Cancer To You?”

Bourree Lam ponders the issue of doctors treating their friends and family:

[A]sking for medical advice isn’t exactly like asking your astrophysicist friend to explain string theory to you. Doctors face ethical dilemmas when they are asked to treat, or further write prescriptions, for their friends or family. Additionally, even though one might prefer a friend or relative to be their doctor—the flip side might be a totally different story: They might not want to be your doctor.

This is the topic of a recent New England Journal of Medicine essay by a group of doctors looking at the challenges M.D.s face when asked to discuss illness, refill a prescription, or even perform surgery for a friend or family member.

The essay says that there are complicated ethical issues involved in treating friends and family, as anxiety and emotional investment can result in bad medical judgment. Additionally, a friend or family member is less likely to sue for malpractice, which could meddle with how doctors think about risk.

Yet an informal poll on NEJM’s website has 62 percent saying yes to a hypothetical situation of writing a prescription for an asthma albuterol inhaler for a neighbor, though 88 percent say they would not prescribe an antidepressant for an acquaintance. And although the American Medical Association and American College of Physicians recommends against treating friends and family members, two surveys cited in the essay indicate that 4 percent of children had their parents as their doctor, and 83 percent of doctors had prescribed medication for relatives.