What Makes a Doctor Great?

Humility | Vulnerability | Empathy | Competency

The human body is one of the most complex, dynamic, and well-oiled machines in the known universe. With a warranty of about fifty to sixty years before rust begins to have its way, the human body requires quality fuel, frequent tune-ups, and constant monitoring to maintain the internal balance necessary to function properly. And the most humbling aspects of these human machines are the similarities they share—similarities that allow thousands of doctors like myself to recognize when “normal” becomes abnormal.

One would assume the great doctor knows more, achieves higher marks, and works the hardest–this makes sense. But there is a secret about taking care of human beings–something that too often goes unnoticed in the fast-paced, virtual world we live in. That is, the power of being human is not in what we are, but who we are; because who we are is far more meaningful than the sum of our mechanical parts.

Statistics, outcomes, and awards have their places in measuring a doctor’s performance, but they certainly don’t define the qualities of a human being. Doctors are not gods. And if they’re great, they aren’t robots either. A great doctor tunes in to something fundamental about humans–no matter who you are, where you come from, or what your status is in society, it is encoded in our biology to seek those who validate us, listen to us, understand us, and care about us. 

I like to think of “well-being” as the state in which our minds triumph over our matter—a state in which our soul, smirking at the incompetency and dependency of our organic biomolecules, takes the driver’s seat of our most magnificent vehicle of inanimate carbons to give it meaning and purpose. And it isn’t until the human machine begins to fail that we are humbled by our soul’s inadequacies at handling the physical world–and we begin slowly losing the hope that fuels our motivational energy to keep fighting.

A great doctor has ears like our best friend, the heart of a relative, and the professionalism of a leader—the type who would rather stand side by side and lead together than stand in front and lead alone. These qualities are not something one learns in four years of medical school. They are acquired continuously throughout life, beginning in childhood. Our experiences and interactions with the world constantly influence our souls–molding them into unique entities each with a different story to tell. And the great doctor listens empathically to those stories working diligently to rebuild hope and a sense of control.

Having grown up in a medical family, I’ve encountered many doctors who have this way about them. Their white coat goes on, and somehow the human underneath becomes a figurative Wizard of Oz—an immortal superpower who could do no wrong. The M.D. after their name is a sign not only of their accomplishments, but a marker of their identity. It becomes them. They are the combination of prestige, honor, and respect. They save lives and use sophisticated words and drink Starbucks. They go to meetings to be revered and write papers to be cited. The white coat is not only a way to publicly identify their status within the health system, but it becomes a cloak—a way of covering up the mortal, fatigued, and emotional human being hiding underneath. These types of doctors save many lives, they make a lot of money, and they are well-respected. But whether or not they are great doctors is about something more meaningful than can be described in words. In fact, the value words have in describing a great doctor is about the same the white coat has in identifying one.

It’s the feeling you get from the initial handshake, the way the doctor looks into your eyes rather than at them. It’s the feeling of being understood and feeling important and worthwhile. It’s the feeling of being appreciated as a whole rather than a bullet list of problems. After all, human beings aren’t a list of definitions or an anatomical conglomeration to memorize. We are social beings who need more than just a white coat and M.D. to make us feel something so essential and simple; something that has been wired as part of our evolution before the word “doctor” was even invented.

The healers our patients seek are those who nurture and attend to the wounded souls as they battle the mortality and finality of their physical bodies. And being a great doctor is not about preventing the inevitability of death; it’s about embracing the quality of life. It’s about healing the soul, the driver, the part of us that not only keeps us whole, but gives us the will to continue living and breathing.

That, in my opinion, is what separates the good from the great.

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