A Doctor's Disclosure: Crossing a Line to Offer Compassionate Care

By Christine Cupaiuolo — October 22, 2009

The matter of how much personal information to share with patients comes up frequently for practitioners, and there are times when it can be most helpful. But it is a difficult decision.

In an essay online at WBUR public radio, Our Bodies Ourselves board member Anne Brewster, an internist who works at Massachusetts General Hospital, discusses her decision to disclose something about herself to a 30-year-old patient diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. When Brewster calls to give her the news, she shares that she has the same disease:

In revealing personal information, physician to patient, I had crossed a line. I did so intentionally, in an effort to bring compassion to our exchange, but still today, I cannot shake the slightly uneasy feeling that I have somehow breached medical etiquette.

When we enter medical school and don our white coats for the first time, the division between doctor and patient begins – “us” and “them.” We start our education by dissecting a human corpse, and in so doing, learn early on to separate the body from the person. We master the parts — the Ischial Tuberosity, the Latissimus Dorsi, the Sternocleidomastoid, the Flexor Digitorum Longus. We think about lymphatic drainage, muscle insertions, arterial supply, and nerve innervation. We divide the body into sections: distal and proximal, dorsal and ventral, lateral and medial.

We go on to study disease processes — so many that our heads spin. Eventually, we begin to take care of patients and are encouraged to remember the person behind the disease. We are instructed to make eye contact, to sit on the edge of the bed when we speak to a hospitalized patient, and to use touch when appropriate, by holding a hand or squeezing a shoulder. Empathy is cultivated, but at the same time, explicitly and implicitly, we are taught to keep an emotional distance. Sharing personal information is taboo.

Part of this is for survival. None of us could bear to feel all of the pain, the fear, the loss that we encounter daily in medical practice. If we allowed ourselves to realize that we are vulnerable to all of the diseases we treat, all the time, we could not function. And part of this is about being a good doctor. Emotions can cloud judgment, and the preservation of professional boundaries is essential to quality care.

But true objectivity is a myth.

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