Intended for healthcare professionals


Should doctors share their personal experiences of healthcare with patients?

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: (Published 16 October 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k4312
  1. Fran Robinson, freelance journalist, London, UK
  1. fran.robinson8{at}

It’s a divisive topic, finds Fran Robinson: some doctors feel strongly that it can help when done carefully, but others struggle with its potential to detract from the patient

When upper gastrointestinal surgeon Tim Underwood wants to help his cancer patients deal with feelings of loss he sometimes tells them how he coped with losing a child at 24 weeks’ gestation. The same night he had to consent to his wife having an emergency hysterectomy after a massive bleed.

Some doctors might raise their eyebrows at the thought of sharing personal experiences like this with their patients. But the limited research shows that self disclosure, when doctors reveal something personal, is common in medical practice.1

Underwood, professor of gastrointestinal surgery at the University of Southampton, tells this story to patients very infrequently, and only if it is appropriate. He uses it to articulate not only that he understands what loss is about but that something positive can come out of a distressing time: four years later he and his wife adopted a little boy.

He sometimes uses the story to help patients facing a recurrence of their cancer. Patients with young children may be concerned about telling them about their illness because they don’t want them to worry that they will die. “We had a daughter and were completely honest with her about everything so I use my experience as an example of how I reacted to the situation and how to be open with children,” he says.

Interpreting risk

Underwood also uses his experience of consenting to a cardiac ablation to explain to patients the risks of an oesophageal cancer operation. “I say to them, I have sat where you are, and, although I could have died or been catastrophically injured if the operation had gone wrong, I still …

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