The patient in the family and the family in the patient

The notion that the family is the unit of care for family doctors has been enigmatic and controversial. Yet systems theory and the biopsychosocial model that results when it is imported into medicine make the family system an indispensable and important component of family medicine. The challenge, therefore, is to provide a coherent, plausible account of the role of the family in family practice. Through an extended case presentation and commentary, we elaborate two views of the family in family medicine — treating the patient in the family and treating the family in the patient — and defend both as appropriate foci for care by family doctors. The practical problem that arises when the family is introduced into health care is deciding when to concentrate on the family system. The moral problems that arise concern how extensively doctors may become involved in the personal lives of their patients and families. The patient-centered clinical method provides a strategy for handling both problems. Thus, making the family a focus of care in family medicine can be justified on theoretical, practical, and moral grounds.
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