When Doctors Can Hear, but Can’t Help

by Caren on January 23, 2014

article-1286369-07BA6D6D000005DC-830_468x347Last week, I read a troubling article that fell under the column title “Hard Cases” in the New York Times. Read on and you’ll understand why.

The author, New York Times writer Abigail Zuger, M.D., wrote about a patient’s wife who called her to express concern about her husband drinking. Dr. Zuger was surprised to learn about her patient Tom’s drinking, and yet without Tom’s admission of a problem, there was nothing Dr. Zuger could do or say.

Dr. Zuger goes on to write about the difficulties doctors have detecting drinking problems that are not extreme, and that many patients try to save face. “A new analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that of the 38 million problem drinkers in the country, only one in six have come clean to a ┬áhealth professional,” she writes.

The phone call from Tom’s wife made the situation clear to Dr. Zuger, yet she was forced to reply, “I’m so sorry. I can’t talk to you about that.”

There are moral and ethical standards whereby an adult patient’s health issues are his business alone. And of course, there is the law and the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) which govern patient privacy.

Dr. Zuger did tell her patient, Tom, that his wife called, but didn’t say what she’d called about. She asked Tom if it would be okay for his wife to come to his next appointment, to which he replied, “Absolutely not.”

The story ended there. The doctor never met Tom’s wife or spoke with her again. But she listened and never forgot.

To read Dr. Zuger’s article, “What Patients Don’t Tell Their Doctors,” click here.

 

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