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Opinion: Blurred boundaries between doctor and patient

The Boston Globe, August 23, 2011

When I first went into practice, I had rather firm notions of the proper boundaries between doctors and patients. I wore a long white coat, revealed little about my personal life, never called patients by their first names and felt insulted if they called me by mine. An older colleague found my rigidity amusing. Most of his patients called him Jim, and he played golf with many of them. "You'll loosen up in time," he predicted. Looking back I think I feared that as a young female physician I wouldn't be taken seriously unless I maintained an austere facade. My role models were those legendary physicians of the 19th century whose oil portraits had lined the walls of the hospital in which I did my medical training. Dr. James Jackson of Massachusetts General Hospital summed up their philosophy in his 1855 book "Letters to a Young Physician." He advised that a doctor should maintain a calm and neutral attitude with patients, "abstain from all levity,'' and, most important, "never exact attention to himself." As my colleague Jim predicted, I found this standard nearly impossible to meet over time. After all, a doctor is not simply a repository of information but a human being with a personality, a sense of humor, and a point of view.