Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Secret Lives of Patients

In yesterday's post on e-prescribing, the issue of patient confidentiality came up in the context of doctors being able to see a patient's full medication history in an electronic program, and one commenter brought up that she doesn't necessarily want to tell her shrink about a yeast infection, perhaps because she finds it embarrassing.  The writer of the post, a guest blogger, suggested that this might lead to useful information that should be addressed in therapy, for example the patient's sexual life. 

Years ago, I remember being a bit taken back when a patient brought up some rather problematic (to him) sexual issues in his marriage.  It wasn't the nature of the issues that surprised me (I spent more than a decade consulting to a sexual behaviors unit and I spent several months of residency training on an inpatient sexual disorders unit: it takes a lot to shock me).  What surprised me was that this was the first I was hearing about this issue after seeing the patient for 5 years of psychotherapy.  He had a secret life.

There's not really much to do about this.  One can only help people with the things they bring forward as problems, and we don't, as one commenter pointed out, get notified by the bars every time a patient drinks, or doesn't exercise, or begins yet another dysfunctional relationship, or surfs over to a porn website.  Oh, and I am so glad.  

When it comes to hiding medications, or treatments, then perhaps that's different.  Is it okay for a patient to see one doctor for a Xanax prescription, and if he's not happy with the dose, to see another doctor for more Xanax?  If he's not selling it, I don't think this is illegal, but we'd (meaning docs) all agree that this is wrong, that the patient is deceiving us, and wouldn't  prescribe to someone doing such things.  Is it okay for a patient to hide the fact that he has AIDS, a condition with known psychiatric complications, from his psychiatrist?  We might say that if we're not aware of the medications a patient is taking, then we can't be liable for the interactions, but please-- in therapy it's not just about the fears of lawsuits between strangers, it's also about not wanting to see your patient get sick for completely preventable reasons.

So where is the line?  Is it okay to hide manic behaviors from a psychiatrist---it's none of his damn business if I wanted to sleep with 8 gorgeous women last night and buy them all diamond rings!  Is the psychiatrist entitled to know every behavioral transgression? That he's worth millions when he's getting a discounted fee from the shrink?  That mom thinks he's getting sick again?  Every fantasy that pops into his head?  Is it okay to withhold your dreams from your psychoanalyst?

I won't go on.  You tell me where the exact line is.  I have no idea.