Students often ask me, “should I become a doctor?” That’s a highly personal question that I cannot answer for you. But what I can share are some of the traits that make for great doctors.
Pursuing a career as a doctor is not easy, and the decision to go to medical school should not be taken lightly. If you can identify with these 6 signs, there’s a good chance you’ll be a phenomenal physician.
1 | Resilience
The first trait is a keystone of sorts. Without resilience, you probably won’t get to the point of being able to call yourself a doctor. That’s because the path to becoming a fully licensed and board certified physician is arduous.
During the four years in undergrad, you’re competing with other brilliant college premeds to earn your seat at medical school, and your medical school prerequisite courses and the MCAT are no joke either. Next up, just when you thought you knew how to study and be efficient, medical school comes in like a wrecking ball. You’ll spend the first two years learning more knowledge than you thought possible, culminating in one of the most challenging tests of your life: USMLE Step 1.
It’s not over there. Next, you’ll spend two years in your clinical rotations or clerkships, followed by Step 2CK. Then you’ll do the application process all over again, applying to residency this time. Once in residency, it’s an endurance race to finish anywhere from 3-7 additional years, plus time for further sub-specialization in fellowship.
The path to becoming a doctor is long and challenging, but that’s not why you need to be resilient. Everyone faces unforeseen obstacles along the way—that’s just life. Facing and overcoming those obstacles while still completing the most challenging professional training in the world requires great resilience—the ability to bounce back.
For me, that was overcoming Crohn’s colitis, family emergencies, and financial hardship all concurrently during my college career. For others, it’s losing a loved one or becoming injured in a freak accident. For others, it’s overcoming deeply ingrained bad study habits that result in subpar grades and MCAT scores. If you need help getting better marks, check out our tutoring services. It’s what we’re here for.
While resilience is important, it’s only half of the equation. When things aren’t working, the answer isn’t to get up and keep doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result—that’s just insanity. Rather, it’s to get up and adapt.
2 | Adaptability
If you’re adaptable, this will become your superpower in the journey to becoming a doctor.
As a premed, being adaptable means navigating the highly competitive and cutthroat landscape of university. It means trying new things and failing, but more importantly, learning from your mistakes and continuously improving. It means figuring out why you’re not getting straight A’s, then learning how to study more effectively, and adapting your study strategies until you’re getting stellar grades.
As a medical student, being adaptable is taking everything up a notch. It means looking at why you’re not getting a good night’s rest and adapting your morning and nightly rituals to improve your sleep, which increases your effectiveness during the daytime. And yes, you should be getting adequate sleep, even when you’re on surgery waking up at 3:30 AM every day.
It means totally overhauling your study habits once more because what worked in college isn’t going to work in medical school. It means figuring out how to be useful in not only the operating room but also the delivery room, or the psych ward, or the pediatric ICU. It means adapting to the different personalities of your different attending physicians who are in different specialties because what gets you an Honors in surgery is not necessarily what gets you an Honors in pediatrics.
As a resident, being adaptable means becoming even more self-reliant on your own systems than you were as a medical student. External structure, pressure, and deadlines are reduced, but now a failure to be at the top of your game translates to lesser care for your patients. Adaptability as a resident means taking responsibility and ownership of your patients, and it means adapting to the highly variable demands of each rotation.
And as an attending physician, you still have to adapt to the constantly changing practice of medicine.
3 | Confident but Humble
Confidence is necessary to be an effective physician, but it should not be confused with arrogance.
No matter how smart or hard working you are, you’ll never know all there is to know in medicine. The amount of information is too vast, and it expands every day with newly-published research articles. You will face many days where you don’t know the answer or when new research contradicts your prior understanding. For that reason, a willingness to admit gaps in your knowledge is necessary.
At the same time, don’t let the expanse of medical information scare you into thinking you’ll never be good enough. Imposter syndrome is surprisingly common, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Feigned confidence acts as a thin veil that can easily be disturbed, but real confidence is earned through diligent work and experience.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s all about your systems. You start off not getting the results you want. You assess, adapt, and implement new systems. You get a small win. From there, you repeat again and again, assess, adapt, and implement. Each win gives you more confidence, allowing you to take bigger risks.
At that point, you’ll have the confidence to walk into the operating room without second-guessing yourself. And trust me—the last thing your patient or healthcare team wants to see is a surgeon who isn’t confident in oneself. But remember: be humble, and never let it get to your head.
4 | Emotional Intelligence
Being book smart is important, no doubt about that, but what separates good from great physicians is bedside manner. Developing emotional intelligence to be a great listener, an astute observer, and empathetic to one’s patients is key in establishing trust. And trust is one of the foundational components of an effective doctor-patient relationship.
Often, listening to your patients carefully about their symptoms and medical history will be as important as the physical exam. Clues that point towards the right diagnosis may be hidden in the patient’s complaint, and you need to sort out what’s relevant from what isn’t.
Patients may also be hesitant to share certain details, particularly when it comes to insecurities or situations of abuse. Again, establishing trust is key to facilitating open communication and an avenue to provide the care they need.
Contrary to what many people think, being a doctor isn’t about diagnosing diseases and prescribing medications. Telling a patient what to do, how to eat, and how often to exercise is not an effective way to help. Great physicians empower their patients to take ownership of their own health and wellbeing.
In medical school, we focused on motivational interviewing as a vital tool in our repertoire. This method of interaction focuses on listening to a patient’s concerns and using a stepwise approach to find what sort of interventions are realistic. A good plan that someone can stick to is better than the perfect plan that has zero adherence.
5 | Compassion
Compassion Is showing kindness, care, and a willingness to help another. Some people are born more compassionate than others, but as with all the traits we’ve listed, this is something that can definitely be developed.
The ever-increasing bureaucratic sludge of healthcare is making medicine less about medicine and more about billing, charting, and regulations. Compassion, and remembering that being a physician is a tremendous privilege, will go a long way in keeping you sane.
Those lacking emotional intelligence or compassion are prone to treating patients as diseases rather than as people. The patient is not just a list of medical problems and medications. Your patients won’t value how many publications you have, but rather whether or not you actually care about them. And as we already discussed, this is foundational in trust and mutual respect, which is necessary to be an effective physician.
6 | Work Ethic
Despite what people have told you, being a doctor isn’t about being smart. It’s about having the right work ethic.
You don’t have to be brilliant to pass the MCAT, the USMLE, or your board exams. In fact, if you were a neuroscience major, like I was, or studied another conceptually challenging major like mathematics, physics, or bioengineering, chances are that your college major was more conceptually challenging than what you’ll learn in medical school. For more conceptually challenging classes, you can walk in on test day and figure out many of the difficult problems. In medicine, you’re hosed if you don’t adequately study.
Where medical school is tremendously challenging is less in concepts and critical thinking and more in the vast amount of information you must memorize. If you need help on how to memorize more effectively, I’ve made several videos that can help.
No matter how smart you are, you’ve got to put in the time in order to learn and memorize vast quantities of information. Only once you have a solid foundation of knowledge can you begin to develop more advanced clinical judgment and be the best physician you can be.
This list was by no means exhaustive. Let me know in the comments what other qualities make for great physicians.
Do you believe you have what it takes to become a doctor? If you are considering medical school, are in the process of applying to medical school, or are trying to succeed as a medical student, follow the Med School Insiders blog, which is filled with tools, guides, and how-to resources.