Adopted by the 73rd WMA General Assembly, Berlin, Germany, October 2022
The interaction between the physicians and their relatives seeking medical care can be complex. Moreover, this possibility is highly conditioned by cultural aspects. Interaction can start with asking for simple advice, consultation for minor ailments, and general questions about healthcare and health promotion. This can escalate to seeking medical care and even surgery. Physicians are often their relatives’ first point of call for medical and emotional support. Physicians may be able to offer immediate care in cases of emergency and contribute to well-informed, evidence-based self-care. Other than in emergencies, offering general health information or for minor health problems, physicians should avoid treating those close to them.
The ethical principles governing the work of physicians are equally important and valid when treating relatives. Respect for autonomy may be compromised by lack of privacy, unintentional breaches of confidentiality, and failure to seek informed consent. The relationship with the physician might compromise the patient’s ability to make independent decisions.
Treating relatives may pose challenges in the following circumstances:
- When objectivity is compromised and decisively affected by emotional factors, there could be a risk of either under- or over-treating relatives or of encountering problems that are beyond the physician’s expertise or abilities, which could cause serious harms.
- When there are potential barriers to considering sensitive medical history and/or conducting an appropriate physical examination, which may result in incorrect medical diagnosis and treatment.
- When the physician fails to fulfil requirements concerning patient clinical records, which may result in difficulties if the related patient needs follow-up treatment or when liability issues arise.
- When a negative medical outcome could compromise the relationship between the physician and the related patient.
- When the treatment is not in the best interest or against the will of the related patient.
- When the physician risks providing relatives, perhaps unintentionally and unconsciously, with undue advantages.
1.Physicians should avoid routinely acting as a relative’s primary care physician or serving as the attending physician when treating a potentially life-threatening condition. Physicians may provide care to a relative in emergencies, for minor health problems or when there is no other qualified physician available.
2. Related patients may ask for a second opinion about another physician’s care. If a second opinion is shared, it should be consistent with these recommendations and fulfil the duties of physicians to colleagues. Care should be taken to only discuss the treatment, which is most appropriate and recommended, rather than any judgements about the other treating physician’s care and advice.
3. If a physician treats a relative, the physician should be mindful of the following:
- Strict respect for medical ethics, the patient’s autonomy and consent, with special consideration for minors.
- The physician has the duty to respect a patient’s right to confidentiality and should not share information with anyone else without a lawful basis, including other family members, with the exception of necessary clinical documentation when referring to other health care personnel.
- If a relative indicates an intention to seek a second opinion about another physician’s care, that intention must be respected.
- Consent for treatment must be given by the patient, including competent minors, and for that consent to be valid, it must be fully informed.
- Depending on the nature of the relationship, taking a sensitive history and performing a physical examination may be emotionally difficult or uncomfortable for the patient or the physician. In such situations the physician and the patient should consider consulting another physician.
- Clear and concise patient records must be maintained at all times.
4. If the physician cannot accommodate the recommendations above, the physician should avoid treating relatives.
5. While physicians are encouraged not to treat relatives except in certain circumstances, it is acknowledged that physicians are often approached by their relatives for medical advice or treatment, and their help is frequently beneficial and appreciated.
6. In all circumstances, physicians shall maintain the highest professional and ethical standards, in accordance with the Declaration of Geneva, the WMA International Code of Medical Ethics, and the WMA Declaration of Lisbon on the Rights of the Patient.