When it comes to treating family and friends, healthcare professionals must carefully consider the ethical implications of their actions. Although guidelines do not explicitly mention friends, the reasons for not treating family members apply equally to them. Crossing the line between friendship and the formal doctor-patient relationship can lead to trouble. The Medical Ethics Council has highlighted the problematic aspects of private referral practices in an article published in the Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association (1).
They strongly recommend that all doctors carefully consider the issues before making a decision. On the other hand, a strong focus on not favoring family and friends can result in a failure to provide services that another doctor would consider professionally correct. This expectation may result in the doctor not providing adequate information that allows the patient to make independent decisions on a well-informed basis. Surveys conducted in Norway and internationally show that 99% of doctors have had family members seek medical advice or treatment, and 85-96% have prescribed medications for them (1).
A patient who is treated by a doctor with whom there is a personal relationship may not give accurate information or an accurate history, or seek a second opinion or alternative treatment. This is because they believe it is inappropriate to question the care of a doctor who knows them. Doctors may find it difficult to refuse such requests, even knowing that treating family and friends is frowned upon. The doctor's personal feelings towards the patient can easily influence their professional evaluation and lead to overtreatment or undertreatment.
Holistic plastic surgeon Anthony Youn, MD, of Troy, Michigan, discussed this issue with CNN's The Chart. He suggested that when treating family and friends, doctors should follow the same protocol as with any other patient. This ensures that there is no asymmetry in the private relationship between doctors and their loved ones when the doctor assumes the role of treating physician. He also noted that it is important to leave an easily accessible record to help the next care provider figure out what is going on.
Having a doctor in the family or as a close friend can provide additional peace of mind for many people. However, doctors must be aware of the potential for unnecessary costs or discrimination when treating family and friends. It is important for healthcare professionals to weigh up all factors before making a decision.