Can a smoking doctor help patients quit?

A remarkable thing happened during a recent Global Bridges training: one of the participants admitted to being a smoker himself.  The training was offered as part of the Interamerican Congress of Cardiology in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  During a discussion of how to support your patients in stopping smoking, Santiago, a cardiology student from Argentina, raised his hand and asked how to counsel credibly if your patients know you smoke.  He realized that his behavior may be sending his patients mixed messages, and suggested that it was tempting to simply avoid counseling patients to quit.  (In reality, Santiago was far from the only smoker at the conference; cardiologists regularly gathered outside the entrance for a cigarette, as shown in the accompanying photos).

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Course instructors Gustavo Zabert, Eduardo Bianco and Richard Hurt all offered Santiago their advice.

Course leader Gustavo Zabert, M.D., a pulmonologist, said that he, too, had once been a smoking doctor, but pointed out that the smoking rate among physicians is decreasing; only 5% of pulmonologists in Argentina currently smoke, compared with 25% in 1997 (Gustavo himself quit in 1986; for more on this see the recent Spotlight on the Global Bridges site).

Uruguayan cardiologist Eduardo Bianco, M.D., emphasized that a doctor who smokes still has responsibility to help their patients, and encouraged Santiago to use empathy – knowing first-hand how hard it is to stop.

Richard Hurt, M.D., an internist from Mayo Clinic in the United States, advised ensuring that the doctor’s office is smoke-free.

All agreed that a healthcare professional who has successfully stopped smoking can have even more impact on their patients who use tobacco, having been through the process themselves.  We all wish Santiago the best and commend him for his interest in helping his patients stop using tobacco.

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What advice do you have for Santiago and other doctors like him, who currently smoke yet want to provide credible cessation advice to patients?