Your Illness Is Not My Business

By Julian Fisher, MD

How strange for a physician to say that...and especially as I make an initial appearance on this blog.  Physicians are supposed to be caring and to want to care for patients and their illnesses.  But bear with me for a moment, as this commentary is about to shift.

Illness is omnipresent and often becomes newsworthy, especially when someone with a high profile becomes ill -- or when a dramatic event propels someone -- or a nation -- to prominence because of that illness.  The shooting in Tucson is the obvious example but many others abound.  A prominent CEO takes ill -- again -- or a Hollywood celebrity falls off the wagon - with a giant thud.  And suddenly the spotlight of Entertainment Tonight or ABC or the New York Times or the Financial Times shines upon them...and the world hovers in expectation or curiosity.

We are supposedly in a new world of journalism melded with technology.  Actually not true:  the new age began decades ago before the Internet or blogs existed with all-news radio stations and then 500 cable channels enriching our lives as never before...and needing to fill their programming venues with "stuff."  The news expanded -- or news producers expanded the available news to fill that void, a topic that James Fallows has covered so well here and in his book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.

Thus was born intrusive news, or the world intruding on us, peering over the shoulders of those who are well and especially those who are ill, wondering how ill they are and when or whether they will get better.

I would argue that illness is a very personal and private matter.  Anyone who has worked with patients knows that. Anyone who has a family member seriously ill knows that.  Learning to walk or talk again after a stroke takes a great deal of effort.  Regaining one's strength after major shoulder surgery or loss of a limb entails hours and weeks and months of agonizing work -- and pain.  There are few patients who want to expose themselves in their moments of greatest weakness to public scrutiny, to be items on Entertainment Tonight or the equivalent general news or business news outlets.

There are, of course, outliers:  the larger-than-life Hollywood individual (perhaps afflicted with a narcissistic personality disorder) who wants/needs to have his or her illness flung or hung out for public inspection or the captain of industry whose presence is critical to the company (I'd sell any stock I had in that company if its performance depended on only one person at the top).

But in general, illness is a private matter, and as much as we want to know about the triumphs and trials of others, we need to learn to back off and allow people to be ill and recover in private: the illness of others is your business only if they ask you to join in.

Julian Fisher, MD is a Boston-based neurologist and medical information entrepreneur.