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The Patient-Physician Relationship
December 19, 2001

The Inner Life of Physicians and Care of the Seriously Ill

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Hertzberg Palliative Care Institute, Department of Geriatrics and Adult Development, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY (Drs Meier and Morrison); and the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Department of Medicine, Department of Medical History and Ethics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle (Dr Back).


The Patient-Physician Relationship Section Editor: Richard M. Glass, MD, Deputy Editor.

JAMA. 2001;286(23):3007-3014. doi:10.1001/jama.286.23.3007

Seriously ill persons are emotionally vulnerable during the typically protracted course of an illness. Physicians respond to such patients' needs and emotions with emotions of their own, which may reflect a need to rescue the patient, a sense of failure and frustration when the patient's illness progresses, feelings of powerlessness against illness and its associated losses, grief, fear of becoming ill oneself, or a desire to separate from and avoid patients to escape these feelings. These emotions can affect both the quality of medical care and the physician's own sense of well-being, since unexamined emotions may also lead to physician distress, disengagement, burnout, and poor judgment. In this article, which is intended for the practicing, nonpsychiatric clinician, we describe a model for increasing physician self-awareness, which includes identifying and working with emotions that may affect patient care. Our approach is based on the standard medical model of risk factors, signs and symptoms, differential diagnosis, and intervention. Although it is normal to have feelings arising from the care of patients, physicians should take an active role in identifying and controlling those emotions.