When a Patient's Physician Family Member Intervenes in Patient Care

April 26, 2014
David Doyle

Patients' physician family members can help ensure you are providing the best care to patients. But you need to handle the relationship with them appropriately.

Managing communication and relationships with a patient’s family is a valuable skill in itself, but what about when a member of the patient’s family is a physician? It’s not uncommon for family members to request sensitive information or try to influence care regarding a patient. But at least family members who work in the medical community can draw on their own medical background, rather than referring to what they learned on Wikipedia.

Here's how physicians should react when a patient's family member attempts to get involved in the patient's care:

Consider privacy rules.
The HIPAA Privacy Rule contains guidelines for how much information physicians are permitted to share with a patient’s family. Information can be shared if the patient is either present and agrees to allow it, or doesn’t object when given the opportunity to do so. A patient who asks for permission to bring a family member into the exam room is viewed as having consented to letting the attending physician share medical information with this individual.

And if a patient is unable to give permission, the physician can then use his best judgment in the matter. HHS provides the example of sharing details with a patient’s family member over the phone while the patient is incapacitated.

This covers the two most likely ways that a patient’s relative who works in the medical community will try to obtain information: by accompanying the patient into the exam room or requesting information over the phone. Some medical professionals might even request to see a copy of their relative’s medical chart.

Consider the benefits. 
Healthcare providers approach the relationship with a patient's family member in different ways. Some feel as though their every move is being watched, while others realize that this relationship, if managed properly, can improve patient care. Physicians who accompany a relative to a doctor’s appointment can provide a wealth of valuable information - details the patient may be unable or unwilling to provide on his or her own - by conveying this information in medical terms.

Above all else, you should keep in mind that these physicians are just concerned about the well-being of their loved ones and want to do what is best for them. They want to know everything they can about the patient’s care and get reassurance that you’re exploring all avenues.

So remain calm whenever you’re speaking with these individuals, as they’ll usually prove to be a valuable asset during a patient’s care. By earning the trust of the doctor in a patient’s family, you’ll help cement the patient’s trust in your care, putting his or her mind at ease during treatment. And you’ll know you’ve earned that doctor’s trust when she defers to your judgment.

Consider alternative options.
If you ever feel as though a family member is getting in the way of a patient’s care, don’t be afraid to reach out to this person and try to work out an alternate system for keeping him or her informed. Consider scheduling a phone call at a set time after the patient’s appointment, ensuring that the relative never feels left out of the process. Family members are less likely to be stressed about not hearing from a loved one or not receiving updated charts following a visit, if they know the physician has set aside time later that day to provide them with a detailed update.

By prioritizing communication with patients’ family members who work in the medical community, you can ensure a smoother patient-physician relationship while also improving patient care.

What strategies have you employed at your practice to help you better manage the relationship between patients and their physician family members?