Physicians Giving Medical Advice to Friends: Context is Key

When is it okay for a physician to give professional advice to a family or friend?

That was the thrust of a study by researchers from the Care and Public Health Research Institute at Maastricht University of the Netherlands, who conducted five focus group sessions with 39 junior and senior physicians.

They found that the key is for physicians to orient themselves to a specific situation. “Some settings were considered more practical and confidential for diagnostic purposes than others,” they wrote. Here other highlights of the study:

  • Researchers said a party or family gathering was not considered private enough to give medical advice, while situations considered to be an emergency rendered all of factors “irrelevant.”
  • The closeness of the physician’s relationship was a key consideration in deciding whether to respond to a nonpatient’s medical request or not.
  • Professional curiosity might also prompt physicians to respond.
  • Junior physicians expressed concerns about making a mistake if they responded inappropriately to a nonpatient’s request, and that mistake could lead to patient harm.
  • Physicians who had felt they had made a mistake in the past were less likely to respond to any requests.
  • Physicians noted they did not want to interfere with any relationship the person might already have with their own treating physician and, as a result, were disinclined to respond to a nonpatient’s request.

The conclusion by researchers? “When considering this broader context of the sociology of health access, it becomes clear that any simplistic application of the current guidelines to not give advice or treatment to relatives is not feasible. This is a complex space, and physicians require training and experience to negotiate these issues safely.” The report was published online January 8 in the Annals of Family Medicine.