When Friends and Family Ambush You for Free Medical Advice

Neil Chesanow


July 26, 2017

In This Article

Informal Advice May Actually Do Some Good

Far from feeling oppressed by incessant requests for medical advice, the doctors we spoke with, if they do not actually relish sharing their knowledge with friends, relatives, and perfect strangers, at least consider it an important part of their job. Every doctor is also a teacher, as the saying goes. Moreover, many doctors claim that the informal advice that they dispense often does some genuine good.

Dr Vega is a case in point. He says that he gets peppered with medical questions wherever he happens to be—on buses, at parties, you name it. He's all for it.

"As family doctor, I actually like the chance to make interventions, because it's always interesting to hear people's stories," he says. "It's why I went into this field."

"It's also good for the patients," Dr Vega continued. "Sometimes what they're doing is potentially harmful or doesn't make sense, or they're spending a lot of money on something that we know doesn't work. It makes me feel better personally to make those kinds of interventions. And even when I can't, because it's a hopelessly complicated case that really does require clinical care, it's often therapeutic just to listen and reflect back some emotion and sympathy about what's going on."

Dr Lawton has noted three categories of advice about which he is commonly asked. "The first is, 'Do we need to go to the emergency room?' That's usually a pretty easy yes or no, and I have no qualms about telling people, 'No, I don't think you need to go to the emergency room, and here's why,' or, 'Yes, you really do.' I don't think that is a burden or imposition of people on me, because I've got information. I've got knowledge. And if I can save them the time and the money or something that's otherwise avoidable, by all means," he says.

"The second category is general issues, such as, 'My kid is a bed-wetter. Is that a problem at his age? What do you think?' I also have no problem with that, because I do the same thing with my friends and neighbors. I have friends who are in construction and remodeling, for example. I'll say, 'We're thinking of doing such-and-such. What do you think? Do you have any ideas?' It's the same concept."

"The third category is the most frequent one: assistance with access. 'Do you know a good physical therapist?' 'Do you know a good dietitian?' 'Do you know a good infectious disease specialist?' And we will facilitate. We'll call up the office for an appointment and ask, 'Can you maybe get this child in a little sooner?'"

Dr Mintz, who also offers the occasional curbside consult, finds that two types of situations commonly require his assistance. In the first, an injury has occurred at a public event where, by chance, he happens to be present. The issue is usually whether the injury requires immediate medical attention in the emergency department or can wait for a scheduled doctor appointment the next day or after the weekend.

In the second situation, a friend or neighbor has a minor medical crisis at the last minute. This individual would normally schedule a visit with his or her regular doctor, but with the clock ticking, there isn't time. Bringing the problem to Dr Mintz is a matter of convenience.

For example, "My neighbors were getting ready to go to the airport to fly to Disney World," Dr Mintz recounts. "And one of the kids, who was probably 9 years old, fell and cut his lip a little bit. Normally, they would go to their family doctor or even the emergency room, but they knew they would wait there for hours, miss their flight, and ruin the family vacation. So they came to me and said, 'Look, sorry to bother you, but do you mind? Do we need to go to the emergency room?'"

"I looked at the cut. It wasn't clear whether it needed stitches. I'm not a pediatrician. I'm not a plastic surgeon. I can't do stitches. And this was on a kid's face. He could have been scarred for life. I didn't want to make a rash judgment. I didn't feel qualified to evaluate it. I explained this to them. I said, 'Go to the emergency room. I'll call in advance and let them know what your situation is, and hopefully they can get you in and out quickly and you can make your flight.'"

"That's what happened. They were seen. I don't think the kid needed stitches. And they got on their flight on time."

The Los Angeles doctor who was shown the mole tells of another woman "who showed a mole on her foot to a physician in a social setting, and it was a melanoma. She told me that doctor had saved her life. She went in, and they did a biopsy right way. They treated it with mole surgery, and now she is doing just fine. Her own doctor had missed it. She had just had her physical. She hadn't mentioned it to her doctor, and after the visit, she said, 'Oh, the doctor didn't say anything. Maybe I should show it to someone else.'"

"I think there is some service that we can perform in these social settings," this doctor says. "As a primary care doctor, it's fine with me to give that kind of curbside consult—as long as it's socially appropriate."


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