Self-care when the doctor is the patient


It is well known that doctors generally make terrible patients. We self-diagnose, self-treat, delay getting help from an appropriately trained person who is not us, and when we do, we often don’t follow medical advice. This of course can lead to less than optimal outcomes.

There are barriers to doctors seeking medical care:

  • We think we are too busy, and often we are too busy!
  • We have the tools at our disposal to diagnose and treat ourselves, so this tends to be our convenient first (and sometimes only) option.
  • We are embarrassed that we need to seek help and see this as a personal failure.

It is awkward being a doctor and needing medical care, especially if it is in a sensitive area such as sexual or mental health, or drug and alcohol addiction.

Doctors fear discrimination and judgement, and with good reason, as we are our own harshest critics and are often just as harsh on our colleagues, and our regulatory systems are even harsher on us than we are.

Health professional staff may feel uncomfortable and anxious about having to treat doctors, and we tend to over- or under- diagnose, investigate and treat our own instead of treating them just like anyone else.

And this is the key to both being a doctor patient and to treating doctors as patients:

Just treat them like anyone else!

There are many special things about being a doctor, but when it comes to our own bodies, they are the same as everyone else’s.

Well, they were, until we stopped eating well, getting enough sleep and enjoying regular exercise and time off work because we were too busy learning to be doctors. And then we had to work hard paying back all the debts we incurred during our training, while trying to make up for lost time and catching up to our friends from school who hadn’t spent 10-15 years of their life training for their jobs, so that we could have a life with all the trappings too.

There are many barriers to doctors seeking care and these need to be understood and honoured, and ways found to support doctors to seek medical care and to take time off from their busy schedules to do so.

So here are some tips for self-care when the doctor is the patient.

  • We need to value ourselves as people, not just for what we do, but for who we are.

This means that we are worthy of basic human needs, like food, water, rest and sleep and time off, and equally as worthy of tender loving care as everyone else.

  • We need to be aware that the way we live and work is highly stressful and makes us more likely to get sick, not less so.

This means we need to make time for our regular health checks with our doctor, and if we have any concerns about our health, have them seen to sooner rather than later.

  • We need to treat ourselves the way we would treat anyone else.

If our patients were in the same situation, how would we advise them? How would we treat them?

We are not supposed to advise our patients saying: this is what I would do, and there are good reasons for that. If we asked them to do what we did or did not do for ourselves, most of us would not be very good doctors!

On a practical level:

  • Listen to your body, which always speaks to you.
  • Do what it says to do.
  • Find a doctor you can trust and see them when you are well, not just when you are ill.
  • Get regular health checks for things like high blood pressure, glaucoma and cancer that we cannot detect ourselves.
  • If you develop a health issue, surrender, surrender, surrender.

Surrender to the need to get help. Surrender and accept the treatment that is recommended. Surrender and rest to allow your body to recover from illness, surgery, or just because you are exhausted.

Learning to surrender to the joys of being cared for by others and learning to appreciate myself as I am, when I was unable to do anything much, are probably the greatest lessons I have learned as a doctor patient.

We are not superhuman. We are not invincible. We are not infallible. We are tender loving beings who need care and support as much as anyone does. And the more we give that to ourselves, the more willing we will be to accept it from others, and the more able we will be to offer it to others – our patients, our family and friends, and our colleagues. When we start to care for ourselves, from within, medicine as a whole will become a much more caring place.



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