When Doctors Should and Shouldn’t Share Personal Information

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In medical school, budding doctors are typically taught not to share personal information with their patients. Doctors should be neutral professionals so their patients feel comfortable without feeling judged. Furthermore, the visit is 100% about the patient, not the physician. But doctors are people, too. We have feelings and experiences and a need for human connection. We want our patients to understand where we are coming from.

So where is the balance? How do we relate to our patients on a human level without ever sharing any information about ourselves that make us more human? In my opinion, it can’t be done. Now before everyone freaks out, remember I am a pediatrician. The majority of my discussions take place with parents, not patients. Furthermore, my own experiences as a parent have made me a better pediatrician and I want to be able to share the wealth. Imagine how empowering it is for parents (who feel like they always need to be perfect) to know that their own pediatrician isn’t a perfect parent. Imagine parents getting advice from a million different sources on a variety of topics; it might carry more weight hearing what actually worked for their child’s doctor. Being able to share my own sleep, feeding and behavior successes and failures not only makes me more human but also helps my patients and their parents. And sometimes it’s just plain fun to talk to my young patients about my favorite ice cream flavor or a good movie they may like or what my Halloween costume will be this year.

Many times parents ask me, “What would you do if it were your child?” They want to know, when they are hesitant, if my child had their shots. They ask how old my kids are and when I let them stay home alone. They want advice on everything from book ideas for the kids who aren’t excited about reading to ideas about potty training to ideas for behavior modification.

As a human being, I learn and grow from my patients as well. We bond and build our relationship by sharing with each other. I get, as well as give, book and movie ideas from my teens. I get vacation or activity ideas from parents. I even learn about therapists or other health professionals that parents have liked or haven’t liked. One of my favorite parts of a visit is “schmoozing” with a family about their summer or school or a new pet or an upcoming holiday…the list goes on. It’s also tremendously heartwarming to know that my patients care enough about me to ask how my family is doing or how my recent vacation was.

I do think it’s important to know when it is appropriate to share and when it isn’t. There are way more times that I’ve held back from sharing personal information than I have actually chimed in. But when I think it’s helpful or might make a mom feel better that I have been in her shoes, I choose to share.

Jaime Friedman, MD, is a pediatrician at Children’s Primary Care Medical Group in San Diego, California.

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