What is the VIP syndrome? The Very Important Person (VIP) syndrome is a pattern of behavior by both the ill physician and his/her healthcare providers that may be deleterious to the established standards of medical care. From the ill physician’s point of view, his or her illness as a physician requires special attention by the caregivers not given to the other patients. The physician is to be treated as a professional and is to be kept fully informed about all the clinical details and is to be consulted as a colleague by the treating physician. The ill physician may request that appointments or lab tests take priority over others for personal convenience. When hospitalized, the physician may be demanding about which nurses are assigned and how they respond to requests. Also, the family of the sick doctor may be similarly demanding.
I suspect that the VIP behavior by the ill physician is not as common as the potential for altered behavior by the treating physician. Unless the treating physician has had lengthy experience caring for medical colleagues, the experience of being a doctor’s doctor can be emotionally traumatic with anxiety, uncertainty, anger and guilt. From the outset, history taking of the doctor may be more incomplete than the average patient since there may be a tendency to avoid asking important but personally embarrassing questions such as involving mental illness, family problems, sex or drug and alcohol use. Physical exams of the ill physician may be more casual and pelvic, breast or rectal exams may be omitted. Testing may be inadequate especially if the appropriate test is uncomfortable. Telling the ill physician the diagnosis and treatment options may be difficult if the treating physician is personally uncomfortable with the conclusion and identifies with a patient with whom he or she has professionally interacted. All of these VIP elements do nothing but worsen or delay proper diagnosis and treatment
Proper communication with the ill physician is essential and probably the most important thing that a treating physician can do is at the outset to make it clear that the sick doctor is going to be treated as a patient and not as a doctor.
For more reading on this topic: "’Doctoring’ Doctors and Their Families” by Stuart A. Schneck, MD
JAMA. 1998; vol.280, pages 2039-2042.