The 5 Most Underrated Virtues of Great Doctors

Medical school emphasizes that one simply needs to be as smart as possible with a borderline annoying amount of empathy, but I would argue that it's definitely not that simple.
05/29/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

I want(ed) to be a doctor. Specifically, I wanted to be a pediatrician since... since... well, let's just say, I don't remember life before wanting to be one. I do love the science and art behind the practice of medicine, but I'm madly, hopelessly in love with the service aspect of it all. Touching lives, changing lives, even saving lives, every single day -- there is nothing else like it. It kills me that I'm not a doctor right now with my brother, friends and peers. But it kills me most of all, that I know I may never have the privilege of becoming one.

But if I did -- get ready for my yearly dose of narcissism -- I would be the best freaking doctor EVER. I've spent the last four and a half years dedicated to perfecting the haphazard art of being a lifelong patient. But instead, with my fascination and background in medicine, I've learned much more about the delicate and mystical art of being a doctor. I've realized this whole entire horrible experience will be for absolutely nothing if I don't share with people what all I've learned. I'm still disturbingly confused about the whole being a patient thing. But I've seen everything from doctors to surgeons, pulmonologists to neurologists, and arguably bad doctors to truly great doctors. Medical school emphasizes that one simply needs to be as smart as possible with a borderline annoying amount of empathy, but I would argue that it's definitely not that simple.

5. Preparedness -- Read a patient's chart before entering your patient's appointment. I know this sounds so silly and obvious, but you would be surprised as to how many doctors actually don't do this insanely simple thing. Surgeons, I may or may not be talking to you... You're probably way too smart, too experienced, and too busy to feel like you need to do any homework or preparation, but this tiny task will do more good for your patient than you can imagine. I can't tell you how many doctors have stopped me mid appointment and said, "Wait, what exactly happened to you again?" It just made me feel ridiculously insignificant, and that feeling can be haunting.ᅡᅠ

4. Responsibility -- Watch what you say. Those two lovely initials after your name, MD or DO, not only guarantee you one of the most rewarding jobs in the world, but also a new lifestyle of incessant responsibility to your profession and your patient. Doctors are rightfully always concerned with what they do, so they won't cause any physical harm to the patient. But they don't realize they really need to watch what they say, because mental harm can be even more hazardous. When I first had my stroke, a family friend who was a doctor, came to visit me in the ICU. No one was around, so she just started rambling to fill the raging silence. Probably thinking aloud, she casually stated, "I don't know why you were like this, now you'll just be paralyzed. Maybe you can try to get your voice back at least." Just like that, she tore down the walls of protective positivity my family had delicately built up around me. Just like that, she slammed the door on the possibility of a happy future. Just like that, she destroyed my fragile stability, and me. Just like that. I would find out months later from the best doctor I know, my brother, that she didn't even know anything about my diagnosis at the time. None of the things she said had any merit to them. But I had believed her, and lived with a near lethal amount of mental pain, because she was, after all, a doctor.

3. Honesty -- Be honest, even/especially when it hurts your reputation. In medical school, we learned about how we have made so much progress uncovering the mysteries of the human body and mind, but there is an infinite amount of information in this beautiful and bizarre medical world that still evades us. I really respect the doctor who answers my insanely complicated questions about my rare condition with three simple and brutally honest words: I don't know. Doctors are in fact, human. Patients don't, and shouldn't expect doctors to know everything. I've encountered several doctors who clearly don't know an answer, but will just talk in circles for the sake of preserving their seemingly omniscient powers. If a doctor admits he doesn't know something, I don't immediately think, "Wow, he must be dumb," but rather, "Wow, I can really trust this guy!"

2. Humility -- Never talk down to your patients -- it's tacky. The average doctor has spent eight years in college, about four years in residency, and about one or two years in fellowship, along with incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans. They've definitely earned the right to talk to anyone they want, however they want, but they really shouldn't. There is an unspoken understanding between a doctor and a patient about who is superior, and who is inferior. The patient is already in a vulnerable position, so there is really no need to draw attention to that hierarchy. My favorite doctor is the one who respects that I have some knowledge as well and I do know my body better than anyone else. Whenever I ask him a question, he first asks me, "Well, what do you think?" Even though he's the one with the degree and the experience, ᅡᅠhe appreciates my measly opinions. You have no idea how important and validated that makes me feel.ᅡᅠ

1. Boldness -- There's no such thing as false hope. Hope is inherently "false," otherwise it would be considered fact. These days, doctors seem to be so afraid of giving a patient "false hope" that they end up giving them "actual despair." For the first three months after my stroke, I didn't hear a positive word at all from any of my doctors. Every second of every day, I thought I was going to die. I was terrified of falling asleep, because I was sure that if I did, I would never wake up. I was doomed to a life of ceaseless, hopeless, sleepless tears. The truth was, I was previously really healthy (what up, vegetarians) and really young. There was some factual hope that I would get better, which I obviously did, but I wish someone had been bold enough to point that out. Instead, no one said anything, so I believed there was nothing to say. After a particularly frustrating and vague meeting with my doctors and therapists, I was, of course, sobbing away. My petite yet brave resident reluctantly came over to me, and gently put my hand in hers. She made me look up at her and calmly and confidently said, "Don't worry, it's all up from here." It was an incredibly vague statement that could have meant anything, but it was purely and thankfully, positive. That single moment literally made my life. My family and I thank her every second for her boldness in that moment on January 29, 2009 -- a day that I will never forget.ᅡᅠ