Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Special Considerations in the Care of the Physician-Patient: a Lesson for Medical Education


In the field of medicine, there is strong emphasis on the healing of others, but not as much on the healing of self. It is therefore not surprising that physicians may be ill-equipped to not only care for other physicians, but to be treated as patients. Multiple studies indicate that relatively few physicians have their own primary physicians and often rely on self-treatment, rather than obtaining comprehensive care from other physicians. Through the lens of a personal struggle with serious illness, the author develops a discussion about potential barriers physicians face in seeking care, the downstream effects of physicians’ perceptions of health care, and ways to make changes to prevailing physician health attitudes. Potential changes at the undergraduate, graduate, and continuing medical education levels are considered, in order to help physicians both to embrace their roles as patients and also better serve their colleagues who are under their care.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Kay M, Mitchell G, Clavarino A, Doust J. Doctors as patients: a systematic review of doctors’ health access and the barriers they experience. Br J Gen Pract. 2008;58(552):501–8.

  2. 2.

    Campbell S, Delva D. Physician do not heal thyself. Survey of personal health practices among medical residents. Can Fam Phys. 2003;49:1121–7.

  3. 3.

    Hooper C, Meakin R, Jones M. Where students go when they are ill: how medical students access healthcare. Med Educ. 2005;39:588–93.

  4. 4.

    Spencer J. Physician heal thyself—but not on your own please. Med Educ. 2005;39:548–9.

  5. 5.

    Rosen IM, Christie JD, Bellini LM, Aasch DA. Health and health care among housestaff in four US internal medicine residency programs. J Gen Intern Med. 2000;15:116–21.

  6. 6.

    Center C, Davis M, Detre T, Hansbrough W, Hendrin H, Lazlo J, et al. Confronting depression and suicide in physicians: a consensus statement. JAMA. 2003;289(3):3161–6.

  7. 7.

    Balon R. Psychiatrist attitudes toward self-treatment of their own depression. Psychother Psychosom. 2007;76(5):306–10.

  8. 8.

    Cappell MS. The physician-administrator as patient. Distinctive aspects of medical care. Perspec Biol Med. 2011;54(2):232–42.

  9. 9.

    Rosvold EO, Bjertness E. Illness behavior among Norwegian physicians. Scand J Public Health. 2002;30:125–32.

  10. 10.

    Schneck SA. “Doctoring” doctors and their families. JAMA. 1998;280:2039–42.

  11. 11.

    Stoudemire A, Rhoads JM. When the doctor needs a doctor: special considerations for the physician-patient. Ann Int Med. 1983;98(Part 1):654–59.

  12. 12.

    Thompson WT, Cupples ME, Sibbett CH, Skan DI, Bradley T. Challenge of culture, conscience, and contract to general practitioners’ care of their own health: qualitative study. BMJ. 2001;323:728–31.

  13. 13.

    McKevitt C, Morgan M. Anomalous patients: the experiences of doctors with an illness. Sociol Health Illn. 1997;19(5):644–67.

  14. 14.

    Gross CP, Mead LA, Ford DE, Klag MJ. Physician, heal thyself? Regular source of care and use of preventive health services among physicians. Arch Intern Med. 2000;160:3209–14.

  15. 15.

    Wells KB, Lewis CE, Leake B, Ware Jr JE. Do physicians preach what they practice? JAMA. 1984;252:2846–8.

  16. 16.

    Lewis CE, Wells KB, Ware JE. A model for predicting the counseling practices of physicians. J Gen Intern Med. 1986;1:14–9.

  17. 17.

    Jain S, Foster E, Biery N, Boyle V. Patients with disabilities as teachers. Fam Med. 2013;45(1):37–9.

  18. 18.

    Reilly JM, Ring JM. Physician, heal thyself: tools for resident well-being. Med Ed. 2007;41:522–3.

Download references


I would like to thank Dr. Patcho N. Santiago for reviewing and editing this manuscript. His suggestions and mentorship have been invaluable in the process. I would like to thank Dr. William Shimeall for his recommended revisions and comments. I appreciate both Dr. Santiago’s and Dr. Shimeall’s dedication to education and willingness to assist me despite being the program directors of busy psychiatry and internal medicine residency programs, respectively. I would also like to thank Dr. Gregory Dadekian, who cared enough to make me face my denial—teaching me how to be a patient in the process. I am indebted to him.


The author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Author information

Correspondence to Sherrell T. Lam.

APPENDIX 1. Factors to Consider in Treating Physician-Patients

APPENDIX 1. Factors to Consider in Treating Physician-Patients

Physician-Patient Factors
• Delay of care: recognize that physician-patients may minimize and rationalize symptoms to avoid appearing “weak” and also to suppress subconscious fears of being ill.
• Sense of duty: realize that physician-patients may place patient and colleague needs before personal health needs.
• Self-doctoring: understand the inherent motivations for physician-patients to self-treat, including expediency and desire to avoid inconvenience for fellow physicians.
• Directing own care: appreciate the difficulties that physician-patients experience in embracing the patient role, leading to the tendency to continue to attempt to exert medical control over personal illness as a physician.
Treating Physician Factors
• VIP syndrome: recognize positive reactions of fellow providers toward physician patient (prioritized for procedures, special attention) and negative reactions of fellow providers toward physician patient (perceived preferential treatment).
• Presumption of knowledge: be aware of tendency for treating physicians to speak in medical jargon, counsel less and assume familiarity with procedures and treatment when caring for physician-patients.
• Excessive deference: understand inclinations of providers to attempt to “spare” physician-patients from embarrassing procedures, while not making firm recommendations on treatment and tending to elevate the physician-patient into a relatively greater role within the provider-patient relationship than non-physician patients.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lam, S.T. Special Considerations in the Care of the Physician-Patient: a Lesson for Medical Education. Acad Psychiatry 38, 632–637 (2014).

Download citation


  • Physician-patient
  • Health care
  • Self-treatment