A Doctor in the Family

How does the saying go? A doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient and fool for a physician.
If you treat your loved ones, who do they have for a doctor? Do they even have a doctor, or do they just have a script pad, referral pad, yes-man, or an annoying puller-of-medical-strings? Do they have over-diagnosis, inappropriate tests and treatments? Or do they have reassurance where none is warranted?

It seems that the children of doctors are in danger of one of two extremes- being tested for everything, labelled with unnecessary diagnoses and treated when no treatment may be the best option, or… walking around on their broken leg for weeks before being xray-ed.

The self-aware doctor may struggle with finding the finer balance between the two.

Recently my baby boy, afflicted with the latest in a series of day-care viruses, developed bronchiolitis and mild bronchopneumonia.

I dutifully took him along to the GP, several times, as his illness progressed.

As he worked to breathe, I stared obsessively at his chest, neck and face, monitoring his level of respiratory distress. I knew that most parents would take him in to hospital with that nasty wet cough and wheeze, but from my (brief) paediatric registrar experience I knew that he was not yet needing inpatient support. So I watched him. And watched him.

I wished I was not a doctor. Knowing the worst that can happen and understanding the disease process can make you worry more rather than less, I found.

I was glad I was a doctor. Knowing it was ok to give him a little more prednisone, knowing how to calculate the correct dose of antibiotic after a mistake was picked up at the pharmacy, having access to a practice with oxygen and salbutamol (the latter predictably had little effect but was worth a try)… How would I have managed all this otherwise? I guess by taking him back to the GP yet again, or in to the hospital, like a ‘normal’ parent.

Being a doctor though, you are highly conscious of how you and your family will be perceived by their treating doctor or team. You want to be a ‘good’ patient, that only comes in when necessary, is cooperative and grateful.

You are aware that it is vital to be a parent and not a doctor to your children, but it is impossible to divorce the two parts of yourself and irresistible to use your doctor knowledge to ease the path where possible, or ease the load on the actual treating team.

I am so grateful to my son’s GP, to all doctors who are comfortable treating doctors and their families. It can provide an added challenge to any clinical scenario.

My son thankfully recovered and is now full of beans and learning to crawl, while we stagger around shellshocked. Ah, the resilience of youth!

Image from shutterstock




  1. We know that they’re sick when doctors bring their kids or themselves in though Dr Deloony. Sometimes they do need it. I took mine to ED at age 5 after a week of night sweats, which I had ignored blaming the weather, until the 7th night when I thought OMG I’m ignoring his leukaemia! Happily it was iron deficiency instead, but it did need to get investigated and treated…

  2. I did similar when my children were younger—I could manage most things, except the febrile convulsions, during which I panicked at the sight of my son’s blue lips and unresponsive body. Luckily, my husband could control himself enough to still act doctor-like. These days, my children are extra robust because of having two doctors for parents. We ignored our son’s ear ache until, on the way to cricket training, I noticed the pus dribbling out of his ear. Our worst, about which I still feel guilt, was ignoring the full thickness friction burn on our two-and-a-half-year-old’s finger that he got from placing his hand on the running treadmill. As he wasn’t in pain, like all full thickness burns, we just thought he’d lost the skin. Two days later, when he wasn’t moving his hand, we took him to a paediatrician friend (I know, still being slacko’s) who took one look and said, ‘That might need a little skin graft.’ Luckily it didn’t, but it did require splinting and daily dressings for weeks. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look that burns surgeon in the eye again. I’m sure there’s a lesson in this, but I don’t think doctor-parents will heed it! My daughter, who’s now at Uni studying Medicine, told us recently that a group of students whose parents were doctors, were talking about the negligence they’d suffered as children. Some had gone days with fractures and febrile illnesses before being taken to a doctor! They all survived and I suspect we doctor-parents will never stop crossing that doctor-parent boundary.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I am a doctor’s daughter myself and remember suffering for a week with strep throat before I produced the necessary pus required for my mum to allow me some antibiotics. Now, I would probably be exactly the same. It is interesting that with some patients you tend to treat such things very readily, but your own family you feel empowered enough to actually watch and wait when that’s the best thing. Certainly watching and waiting occasionally backfires and there is a fracture on the eventual xray. You are right, we all end up more robust for it I think!

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