When Friends and Family Ambush You for Free Medical Advice

Neil Chesanow


July 26, 2017

In This Article

Curbside Consults Vary a Great Deal

The variety of circumstances in which doctors are asked to dispense free advice often makes it difficult to think defensively, even though it's a good idea.

Internist, Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, senior medical director at WebMD, was recently asked by a neighbor for advice about her mother, who was experiencing multiple medical problems associated with dementia.

"She gave me the background of what was going on with her mom, and I was able to help make some sense of the issues and organize them in way that allowed her to create next steps," Dr Cassoobhoy explains. "I don't necessarily ever think of my role as solving the medical issue. It's more about the best way of moving forward."

Sometimes, in informal situations, doctors are asked for the kind of intimate advice normally reserved for the privacy of the exam room. And sometimes the doctors are not exactly given a choice as to whether they wish to respond.

The aforementioned family doctor in Los Angeles recalled attending a cocktail party at which a guest learned who she was. In full public view, the woman abruptly lifted her blouse to show the doctor a worrisome mole near her breast. The doctor was taken aback.

"People become so excited that they've finally met someone who knows something about this thing that's been bothering them," this doctor observes. "Often, they haven't even shared it with their partners, husbands, or wives because they think it's nothing, and they don't want to look alarmist. But then they see you, and it's like, 'Oh, thank God! Finally, someone I can show it to!' And suddenly they yank up their shirt and blurt out, 'Here it is!' And I kind of go, 'Um, this is not the right place.'"

Finding the right place to offer informal advice can be sometimes be problematic, particularly if it's of an intimate nature.

"I was once pulled aside at a party to look at a woman's skin lesion," recalls another family doctor in California, who shall remain nameless. "We found a private space to do it. And I wondered, if my wife had found out that we had left the party and discovered us together—alone in this room, with this woman getting undressed—how would that have looked, and how understanding would she have been? It crossed my mind as we walked in there, 'Boy, this looks a little shady.'"

Of course, when you're a physician, dispensing some medical advice gratis goes with the territory. For instance, accidents will happen. If a doctor is at hand, his or her opinion will naturally be sought.

Matthew Mintz, MD, an internist in Bethesda, Maryland, happened to be at a public swimming pool when a girl about 12 years old fell and injured her hand.

"The mom asked me, 'Hey, can you look at her hand?" he recalls. "Even though I'm not a pediatrician, I had enough medical knowledge to tell whether a hand is sprained or fractured, and whether this person is okay or needs to go to the emergency room. So I'm okay with giving that sort of medical advice."

And in a genuine emergency, a doctor is duty-bound to intercede, as Dr Fryhofer did—more than once—on a flight from Atlanta to Boston. "I got called three times to see patients on that plane," she recalls. "I told the flight attendant to tell the pilot that the emergency people needed to meet the flight at the gate to get one of those patients off the plane before everyone else."

For her efforts, the passengers gave her an ovation.


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