What Makes a Good Doctor?


You’re sitting in the exam room, waiting for the physician. He rushes in and turns his attention to the computer as he introduces himself. As he reads off questions from a screen, the interaction seems less like a personal conversation and more like a well-practiced survey. Before you feel like you’ve had the chance to fully explain your condition, he jumps to prescribing the medication. He asks, “Do you have any questions?” Of course, you do, but the whole situation is awkward, so you uncomfortably say “No, thank you.” He signs a form, exits the room, and you’re not sure if you feel any better after the interaction. If anything, you think you feel a bit worse. Even if the physician diagnosed you properly, you can’t help but think, ‘He’s not a very good doctor.’

Medical schools and residencies focus on training individuals to diagnose and treat patients. But studies show, and experiences confirm, that training alone isn’t enough to develop ‘good doctors’. What do I mean when I say ‘good doctor’? Patients and healthcare workers alike have identified key qualities that define a ‘good doctor’. By identifying and embracing these qualities, we may be able to improve medical education and training to raise the standard of care and efficacy. Three qualities that are crucial to being an effective and well-rounded physician are empathy, humility, and respect. 


Empathy: The Ability to Understand and Share the Feelings of Another

Patients care about being seen as people, not cases. A physician who understands how their patients feel can genuinely support them and make a significant difference in his or her patients’ experiences. Studies demonstrate that a close doctor-patient relationship brings a therapeutic effect; patients’ brain regions associated with reward light-up, suggesting an increase in their satisfaction. This also strongly correlates with the likelihood of the patient adhering to their prescribed treatments. 

Think of a time when where you were on the receiving end of medical care. Once, while volunteering, I laid down on a hospital bed for new residents and let them practice an ultrasound on me. I was accustomed to talking with patients who were laying in bed, but I was surprised by how intimidating it was to be the one in the bed, surrounded by strangers. Imagine how a patient in pain, who’s in the hospital for the first time, might feel! It’s crucial to remind ourselves of the patient’s perspective. 

Additionally, as physicians, we must understand how the patient might experience their illness and recognize the nuances of each patient. This includes considering their background leading up to the visit, the stress they may be feeling, and anything concerns they may bring up during the visit. We shouldn’t forget that the pathologies and symptoms that seem routine to us could be foreign and frightening for our patients.


Humility: A Modest View of One’s Importance

Physicians are justifiably respected for their professions. Anyone who dedicates years to studying in order to save lives should be confident in their ability to do so. But it’s important to remind oneself how easily confidence can become arrogance. Good physicians recognize the limits of their abilities. When talking with a patient to diagnose symptoms, they listen to their patient’s concerns. Even when a patient fearfully lists irrelevant symptoms, physicians should respond with empathetic reassurance rather than a dismissal of their concerns.


Respect: Regard for the Importance of Your Peers and How They Contribute to the Overall Quality of Patient Care

Good physicians have respect for fellow healthcare workers. Nurses I’ve worked with have told me that the best physicians are the ones who actively support their team with small contributions. For example, instead of idly standing by the door, good physicians will help nurses and paramedics slide a patient from the stretcher to the bed. Even as a doctor, respect is not given – it is earned. A random act of kindness, or the humility to aid in a peers’ responsibilities, can speak volumes and boost morale.


How Doctors Can Become ‘Bad’

We’ve all either experienced or heard stories about bad doctors. Despite the decades of medical school and residency admission protocols to accept students who would become good doctors, bad ones still exist. However, this isn’t necessarily due to the selection process failing to pick the best applicants. Often, our current system turns them into stressed, overworked, and thus, less effective physicians.

Burnout: a State of Emotional, Physical, and Mental Exhaustion

A burned-out doctor is not a good doctor. They carry less empathy, humility, and can even get angry at patients. Evidence suggests that 40-60% of physicians are burned out and the physician suicide rate is double the national average. Several studies suggested that the degree of empathy shown by medical students declines over the course of their training – and. It doesn’t get much better afterward. The literature points to countless causes of physician burnout as a physician. Although preventative measures are often implemented, such as capping residency workweeks to 80 hours/week instead of 120-150 hours, the medical field still has a lot to do to support happier and healthier doctors. Furthermore, when we see “bad doctors”, we must practice some empathy ourselves to consider their perspectives and support the efforts to fight burnout. Advocating the cultivation of a medical culture that creates happier, healthier, and more effective doctors, Med School Insiders runs a #SaveOurDoctors initiative to battle against the medical student and physician burnout.


Do You Have What It Takes to Become a Good Doctor?

Medicine is grueling, and the growing problem of physician burnout is worth considering before dedicating your career to it. Fortunately, there are a few ways to determine if you’d make a good doctor.

Think About Why You Want to Pursue Medicine

The golden question for medical school apps, and rightfully so. Dig deep, and see if you want to become a physician for the right reasons.

Ask Yourself: Am I Willing to Do What it Takes?

Research the path of becoming a doctor. Consider the opportunity costs and alternatives. For example, there are many careers where you can help people in a medical capacity, that aren’t as strenuous as being a physician. Instead, you may be able to fulfill your medical interests by becoming a nurse, physician assistant, or even a physical therapist.

Make Sure You Actually Understand What Doctors Do

There’s a reason why medical schools require shadowing experience. Shadowing a physician allows you to see for yourself what doctors realistically do on a day-to-day basis. This will give you a feel for what most of your days would look like. You don’t want to go through the rigor of medical schools to find out that it’s very different from what you’ve seen in Grey’s Anatomy!

Spend Time in Healthcare

Lastly, volunteer or work in the hospital. Similar to shadowing, this will show you what it’s like to be a doctor and work in a hospital. You’ll learn the differences between health professions such as being a nurse vs a doctor vs Certified Nursing Assistant. You’ll also be able to observe the dynamics among health professionals and how they work together to care for patients. Take note of the different environments at play and consider whether you would enjoy being there for the rest of your career. 


The Takeaway

Every patient deserves a good doctor. Although the medical education system strives to produce the best doctors, our physicians are ridden with burnout, damaging the quality of healthcare. However, if we stay proactive against burnout and pursue medicine for the right reasons with realistic expectations, we can take a step in the right direction to ensure every patient receives quality care.


Leave a Reply