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What to do when your doctor becomes a patient

Their role as healers makes it easy to forget physicians are subject to the same illnesses that befall other humans. They are not invincible, even though their silence about their own health might lead staff and patients to believe otherwise.

Physician illness is a topic that’s not often discussed, even within the physician community. When physicians do broach the subject, it’s usually from the standpoint of working while fighting minor illnesses – plowing ahead so as not to disrupt the schedule and the practice.

The practice depends on the physician; in many ways, he/she is the practice.

So, what happens when a physician is seriously ill? And what is your role, as medical office manager?

Upon diagnosis

A physician facing a serious illness has many of the same concerns as anyone else. Granted, he or she most likely has a greater understanding of disease and treatment, which may be advantageous; then again, it may not. While knowledge is power, it can also disclose a harsh reality.

Don’t assume a physician is any less frightened than anyone else—and allow for the fact that he/she might be dealing with an array of feelings. For a physician, these might include recognizing the limitations of the medical field, which can be a complex and emotional issue.

When the physician shares a diagnosis with you, your first responsibility is to him or her as a coworker and fellow human being. Your role is to listen and offer support. He/she may have a plan for medical treatment, and for the practice. But he may not have gotten that far.

After expressing personal concern, a statement like, “Please let me know what I can do,” can be very effective. If the physician hasn’t yet thought about the office, this will prompt him to do so. As important, it opens the door for conversations about practical matters, matters that are your responsibility.

What you need to know

You will undoubtedly have numerous questions about how the physician’s illness will affect the practice.

It helps to step back, after the initial conversation and shock of illness disclosure, and make a list of issues that have to be addressed.

Questions that require answers include:

  • Will the physician continue to see patients while undergoing treatment?
  • Will the physician cut back on his workload?
  • If so, what are the new hours?
  • Will another physician be covering for your doctor?
  • If another physician is covering, will he/she see patients at your office or will you be referring patients?
  • Should staff be told about the physician’s illness? If so, how much information should be shared?
  • Should patients be told about the physician’s illness? If so, how information should be shared?

Handling appointments, juggling schedule changes, and working with a new doctor require attention to detail and good organizational skills. But the people issues require ongoing sensitivity, as well as a level of professionalism.

How much to share

It’s important to respect the physician’s privacy, while also providing staff and patients with enough information so that they feel comfortable. You will need to have a conversation with the physician to obtain guidelines.

Although the physician may not want to disclose specifics about his illness, if he/she is going to be completely unavailable for an extended period of time, patients will need to know this and be given some explanation as to why. The term “medical leave” is one way to address the matter.

How the physician decides to handle the issue will depend on a number of things, including his personality, his relationship with the patient community he serves, and the community itself. In a small town, for example, it might be impossible to keep details of his illness private.

Nevertheless, the way the situation gets handled is ultimately up to the physician. You can gently make suggestions about what to share and how to share it, while obtaining answers to questions about how the practice will function in his absence so that you can do your job to the best of your ability.

Remember to be kind and respectful when you have these conversations. This is a difficult time in the physician’s life and he can use your support. He will appreciate that you are interested in doing your job well, but it will matter even more that you are compassionate and concerned.

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