Disclosures of illness by doctors to their patients: A qualitative study of doctors with HIV and other serious disorders

Klitzman, Robert L.; Weiss, Jonathan

Objective: To examine issues concerning doctor's disclosures of their illness to their patients.

Methods: We interviewed 50 health care providers who had serious illnesses concerning their experiences with disclosures of their illness to patients.

Results: With regard to their diagnoses, these doctors struggled with whether, when, how and what to tell patients. These issues were prominent, and had broader implications for doctor–patient communication and interactions among doctors with HIV, but arose among doctors with other diagnoses as well. Particularly with HIV, questions emerged concerning whether to: tell patients without being asked, respond only if asked, tell the truth, lie or misrepresent the information. Patients appeared to face dilemmas of whether to ask about a doctor's diagnosis, and whether they had a right to know. Some patients hesitated to ask or felt ambivalent about knowing, as the illness could threaten the doctor–patient relationship. At times, patients learned of a doctor's illness only after the latter had died. Disclosures could strengthen or skew the doctor–patient relationship. We present a model and framework – concerning the complexities of these communications – that can be useful in exploring other key aspects of doctor–patient interactions.

Conclusion: These data raise larger questions of what information patients should be told about physicians. Medical education needs to address these issues better.

Practice implications: Physicians should realize that patients may be anxious about these concerns, and may view the pros and cons of physicians’ disclosures of illness differently than do these physicians themselves.


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Patient Education and Counseling

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May 18, 2020