Depending on your family and friends, you probably know just how easy it is to get into hot water with those you love.
After all, these are the people around whom you let your guard down and with whom you can be the most honest and open.
However, once I became a nurse, I realized that there were certain topics that were just not worth discussing with my loved ones.
Not only did I quickly feel unqualified to answer all of their pressing medical questions, but also I realized that these situations always seemed to blow up in my face.
Here is a bit of background as to how I ended up with this realization.
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Have You Ever Felt As If You Were the Font of All Knowledge?
Once you graduated from college and landed your first nursing job, you may have instantly felt the change between yourself and your family and friends.
Suddenly, your job was spoken of in hushed tones as family members understood the gravity of your life-saving work. Friends treated you with kid gloves so they would not feel bad about calling you in the middle of the night for medical advice.
Just like me, you have probably felt pride in what you do. Nurses are on the cutting edge of health care, working with life-saving equipment most days of the week and constantly learning about new research that can improve patient outcomes.
I have let all of this knowledge, along with test scores, additional certifications and accolades from patients and health care managers, go to my head at times.
If I am not careful, I can easily get carried away with my thoughts and start imagining that I have what it takes to dole out medical advice beyond the walls of my local hospital.
While this is what I often did as a new nurse, I no longer see myself as the free patient advisor to my loved ones. Plus, I have started viewing my knowledge base a bit more truthfully, recognizing that I do not know everything now and that I certainly never will.
But Surely You Are Qualified to Give Advice
Of course, I understand that there are going to be plenty of qualified, smart, and highly educated nurses who will disagree with me on this point. They argue that they’re helping their loved ones stay healthy, advocating for good pediatric and geriatric care, and even easing worried minds.
This could certainly be the case. However, have you ever stopped to wonder if you’re actually making things worse? Have you considered the possibility that you’re undermining the care of that person’s chosen doctor or nurse practitioner by giving your opinion?
Just like you, there have been plenty of times when I have been convinced that I knew exactly what I was talking about from a medical perspective. I have looked at skin rashes, examined eyes, listened to tales of stomach viruses and respiratory complaints and even considered how well a child could speak for his age.
Honestly, some of the things I get asked about are truly surprising. Those little letters behind my professional name make my family and friends think that I can answer any of their questions with a snap of their fingers.
Sometimes, I have even been deluded into thinking that they are right and that my professional qualifications ensure that I have the knowledge and experience to give them advice appropriate to the situation.
The bad news is that these things are rarely so simple. Consider some of the following problems you could face if you do decide to rest on your supposed qualifications and continue to dole out health advice to family and friends.
1. Emotions Can Get in the Way
At first glance, giving medical advice to loved ones seems to be a black and white matter. Just tell them what you think they should do about their concerns and move on without giving the situation another thought. However, when I have acted this way, I have found myself facing a few problems.
First, consider the fact that emotions can get in your way when dealing with loved ones far more than they can in the workplace. Of course, I have found my heartstrings being pulled by certain patients whom I had never set eyes on prior to their admission. However, dealing with family and friends with whom I have a lengthy history is far different.
Emotions can blur the lines when it comes to medical advice. Here are just a few examples of how this would work for me.
- If I find it hard to think about my loved one going through a surgery that could require a lengthy rehabilitation period, I might advise him to wait on seeking care.
- If I am feeling a bit anxious that week, I might jump to the conclusion that the little red spot on my niece’s arm is a truly terrible disease and cause her parents to worry more than they should.
- My overwhelming love for my mother might cloud my judgment, causing me to miss symptoms that I never would have missed if she had been my patient in the hospital.
Hurt Feelings and Broken Hearts
Hurt feelings can sometimes feel as if they are a single conversation away. Because medical issues seem to bring long-simmering tensions and anxieties to the surface, playing into these concerns by voicing my own medical advice can sometimes make difficult situations worse.
Of course, it is not just my family members who have ended up with hurt feelings when following my medical advice in the past.
There have been plenty of times that I have headed back home or hung up the telephone feeling hurt that these people who have known me for years and who should trust me with their lives do not trust my medical advice enough.
In my opinion, nothing is worth a broken relationship.
Exasperation, Anger, Arguments and More
Another set of feelings I have had to deal with when handing out free medical advice left and right is righteous indignation. I have seen exasperated siblings, angry parents and a frustrated spouse.
No one likes to be told that he has a serious medical issue that does not exist. No one wants to spend money on a doctor’s appointment when nothing is wrong. I have also never seen anyone who has been happy when he found out he had a condition that could have been more easily treated if he had sought professional help sooner rather than waiting on my advice.
From my perspective, it is far easier for my loved one to be angry at a faceless doctor at the local clinic than it is for him or her to be angry at me. Now I let other medical personnel be the bad guys and save my breath for commiserating with my loved ones after their health care visits.
2. You Could Give the Wrong Advice
Second, you should stop to consider that you might make the wrong call when it comes to diagnosis or treatment. This can be hard to imagine as a new nurse. You can trust me when I tell you that this becomes increasingly easy to believe the longer you are in your profession.
If I am sleep-deprived, I might miss a symptom I otherwise would have noticed. Without the backup from my coworkers, I might tell a loved one that everything will be fine when it really will not.
When I am feeling prone to worry, I could overreact to something simple, leading my loved one to make unnecessary medical appointments and causing him to worry for the next several weeks.
In the worst case, which has thankfully never happened to me, a nurse could even find herself faced with the reality of having given poor or untimely advice that led to the death of a loved one, which is far worse than an emotionally broken heart.
3. Did You Know You Could Be Sued?
Third, consider that you could actually be sued for giving inappropriate or incorrect informal medical advice. While this is more of a concern for physicians than it is for nurses, virtually anyone can be named in a lawsuit these days. Just because you are not at work does not mean that you are safe.
If I am going to choose to give medical advice to a loved one, I am first going to make sure that I really trust that person. For this reason, I absolutely draw the line at ever giving advice to people outside my immediate family. While I have a great relationship with my cousins and even with some acquaintances from college days, I am not as comfortable with trusting them in this type of situation.
On the job, I am at least partially protected from litigation by my hospital that holds insurance and has attorneys on staff to handle these matters. When I am off the clock, I am on my own when it comes to litigation. Even if I ended up winning a case against an irate former friend, I can only imagine the legal bills I would have.
Your Decision but Your Responsibility
While it is always up to the individual nurse as to what medical information she will give out, a nurse has to recognize that she will always be held responsible for what she says. Nurses and many other members of the medical profession are held in the highest regard by the public. I have to be careful never to abuse this trust even with those whom I love the most dearly.
Of course, if family and friends start recognizing that you are in the habit of giving out free advice, you may find yourself with another headache. Suddenly, your telephone could be ringing off the hook and your text message inbox could be blowing up with pictures of strange skin conditions.
All nurses have to take responsibility for the amount of time they are willing to put into these types of queries.
Recognize Your Area of Expertise
When it comes to giving out medical advice, I have also realized that I need to stick with what I know. The most frequent questions I get asked regard rashes, insect bites and peeling skin. Sometimes I think that my family members believe I am a dermatologist.
While I received a solid foundation in all body systems in college, I have chosen to focus on cardiology in my career. I feel far more confident in giving helpful hints about lowering blood pressure or eating a heart-healthy diet than I do about applying certain creams to unsightly rashes.
Call for Backup
When I recognized that I could not feel confident in giving advice outside of my area of expertise, I found great freedom in telling friends and family that I simply could not have an opinion on their strange skin condition. By taking a hands-off approach, I was also handing back control for that person’s health to his doctor.
The doctor/patient relationship should be a strong one, but this cannot happen without a great deal of trust. If I am constantly disagreeing with what my loved one’s doctor says or insinuating that I know more, that important relationship cannot grow, and my loved one could miss out on vital care.
The Difference Between Helping and Advising
While I generally have a hands-off approach to giving out medical advice to family and friends, there are a few caveats I should mention. I try to stay away from providing definitive diagnoses or treatments outside my workplace, but I do feel confident enough to make some small suggestions to certain people.
Here are a few things I am comfortable doing.
- Pointing loved ones to health care recommendations from professional sites, such as the CDC
- Recognizing emergency situations and advocating for immediate medical care in those cases
- Always recommending that loved ones check with their doctors for professional advice
- Helping loved ones find a new doctor or an urgent care facility for the best advice when needed
- Helping loved ones follow up with doctors’ visits or follow a doctor’s orders
Lack of Service may Actually Be the Best Service Possible
The call to love your neighbor is easy to say but not so easy to do. I used to think that I could best show love to my family and friends by answering all their questions, taking time out of my busy schedule to examine close-up photographs of skin concerns and constantly following up when their complaints were not being resolved.
Over the years, I have discovered that it is nearly always more loving to help my family members and friends find appropriate care from a trustworthy medical professional at a neighborhood clinic than to try to answer their questions myself.
These professionals can perform the necessary assessments, order the right tests and treatments and provide an overall better experience than I ever could over text or the telephone.
Finding the Nice Way to Say No
Of course, recognizing that not giving out free medical advice is the right choice and actually following through on this are two separate matters. It can be difficult to express only empathy and a recommendation for care at a nearby medical facility when your mother or your best friend call you up wondering what to do.
It can also be difficult to recognize when you do not have the medical expertise to provide the right solution to a pressing health problem. However, here are a few ways that I stepped back from being the medical guru in my circle of acquaintances.
- I stopped taking texts after 8 pm.
- I stopped looking at any photographs of medical concerns.
- I came up with a stock response stating that the individual could get the best advice from a trusted medical professional.
- I worked on increasing my empathy so that loved ones would still realize I cared about their health needs.
- I started telling people my boundaries so they would know I was serious about these changes.
Whether you have retired and hung up your stethoscope or are still working as a full-time nurse, you have an awesome responsibility in this world. I know how much your love for others played into your decision to become a nurse.
I would encourage you to consider the potential consequences of being the resident health care guru to your loved ones.
Even though it may initially seem reasonable to give simple suggestions, health problems and your relationships can quickly spiral out of control.
Whichever position you choose to take, consider yourself warned!
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with our points or disagree? Let us know why in the comments below.
This opinion piece on whether or not nurses should give medical advice to friends and family members was written by one of our nurse writers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Nurses should avoid giving medical advice to friends and family members because of the social, emotional and legal consequences.