Things they didn’t teach in medical school: Part 33 Looking after colleagues and their families

Oncology can be a tough specialty with difficult emotional demands. These demands are compounded when you are called on to look after colleagues and/or their families. My earliest encounter with this was actually as a resident medical officer. I remember doing an evening shift and the nurses asking me to see the Professor of Surgery who had just been diagnosed with cancer and was due for a colonoscopy – the nurses were concerned that he had been drinking his bowel prep but hadn’t yet opened his bowels….I assured them he would. Later as a junior registrar I would accompany my bosses to see consultants who were hospitalised – this was just incorporated as a matter of fact into ward rounds.

Now I’ve moved up the food chain and am a boss myself I am called upon to look after the family of colleagues and no doubt I might have to treat colleagues for diseases in my specialty (rather than just their day to day ailments). The hardest thing I’ve had to do in this space is look after a family member of somebody who had been both a mentor and a work colleague. I’ve also had my own family members looked after by colleagues and whilst I’ve not necessarily agreed with the treatment pathways I’ve recognised that this is not my doctor-patient relationship to negotiate.

There is no doubt that you treat these patients differently. I don’t think this is actually providing better care or different for the patient themselves but you might make the extra phone call and provide more regular updates.

I think there are two key practice points to providing this care:

(1) actually, as much as possible, do not do anything different to your usual practice &

(2) remember, as always, to treat the patient, not the family (obviously whilst still engaging with them).

If you are a doctor with a family member being looked after by another doctor then there is a bit of quid pro quo…..don’t second guess your colleague and give them advice what to do – you trusted them enough to look after your family member in the first place.

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