The one thing that’s sure to make you a better doctor

By Charlie Williams
Published October 2, 2020

Key Takeaways

Anyone can toss on a white coat, stethoscope, scrubs, and PPE, and masquerade as a doctor. In fact, it happens every Halloween. But, as cliché as it might sound, if you want to tell the difference between a real doctor and some poseur at a Halloween party, it’s what’s inside that counts.

Real doctors bring years of education, experience, and the wisdom that comes with intense training. They bring an intimate understanding of the scientific method and a readiness to adapt in the face of new evidence. And increasingly, as the world evolves, they must bring the one thing that’s sure to make them a better doctor: a compassionate attitude. In fact, compassion is just one of 10 qualities that make a good doctor.

This article examines the ways that compassion can bolster your career, plus key areas where many doctors might be falling short of the ideal.

Science-backed advantages of a compassionate attitude

Patients prefer to interact with doctors who, in addition to their expertise, have the features of a generally nice person, like compassion, understanding, and humility. Indeed, in a study published in Patient Education and Counseling, researchers found that physicians who are humble—rather than paternalistic or arrogant—were much more effective at working with their patients and facilitating strong physician-patient communication.

Research suggests that when given the choice, most patients would prefer a physician who is kind and warm over one who graduated at the top of their class but is cold. This type of kindness not only brings better outcomes for patients, but healthier lives for physicians, too.

What steps can physicians take to ensure they are embracing the advantages of compassion? It starts with an honest assessment of your habits. Do you use your expertise as a way to empower, or to punish, your patients? Are you a partner in your patients’ health, or the director of it? Are you fallible, or perfect?

Here are a few compassionless typecasts common among many physicians that prevent them from achieving better patient outcomes and more fulfilling careers.

The Dictator

After so many years of training, doctors objectively know more than their patients about human health. But so much of human health is subjective, and the subjective details can make a big difference. Assuming you can boss your patient around because of your training is not only unfair, it’s also naïve—people rarely respond well to dictatorial and paternalistic advice, as demonstrated by the Patient Education and Counseling study above.

Have you said any of the phrases below? If so, you might be taking an authoritarian approach.

  • I am your doctor so I know what’s best for you.

  • If you don’t trust me, go find someone else.

  • Only I can give you the care you need.

  • Don’t bother getting a second opinion.

  • I’ve heard enough.

  • Don’t interrupt me.

The Uncaring Judge and Jury

Being a physician means being constantly reminded of the ways that poor decisions and bad behaviors manifest in avoidable sickness and death. Sometimes there’s no escaping the fact that if a patient doesn’t change their ways, they’ll get sicker, be in worse pain, or even die. It’s your job to help patients avoid those consequences, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to compound a patient’s suffering by trying to shame and blame them toward better health. Similarly, it’s not okay to dismiss a patient or invalidate their story, intentions, or goals.

If you’ve said any of these phrases, it could be time to start practicing greater empathy.

  • This sickness/disease/injury is your fault.

  • This sickness/disease/injury is all in your head.

  • You’re worrying for no reason.

  • You shouldn’t have Googled your symptoms.

  • This wouldn’t have happened if you would’ve taken my advice.

  • It is what it is.

The Dubious Advisor

Ever deal with a situation so heartbreaking you were at a loss for words? How about a time when the answer or diagnosis escaped you, despite your best efforts? Or maybe there was an instance when there was no good answer—the situation was hard and there was no way the evidence could help you soften it? In times like these, it can be tempting to try to explain away the awkwardness by stretching the truth. But that’s a disservice to patients, and while it carries the appearance of compassion, true compassion lies in helping your patients face the truth, not avoid it.

Have you said any of these phrases? If so, it may be time to dial it back a bit.

  • Don’t worry about your mom’s cancer diagnosis. She’s 90 and will pass soon anyway.

  • Don’t be upset your mom died. She was 90.

  • Well, we all die sooner or later.

  • A bottle of wine might make this diagnosis a little easier to handle.

  • Have you tried taking X unproven miracle cure?

  • It’s okay, I’m sure you’ll be fine.

  • It won’t be that bad.

Bottom line

If compassion is scientifically proven to help doctors improve patient outcomes, then we should all be making a concerted effort to be more compassionate. But while almost every situation can be improved with a heavy helping of compassion, it’s important to remember what compassion is and what it isn’t.

Allowing patients to harm themselves by harboring false beliefs and false hopes about their health is not compassion. Not telling patients the truth because the truth might hurt their feelings is not compassion. And failing to stand up for yourself when your expertise is being undercut—that’s not compassion either.

Try compassion on for size. Your patients will be better off for it. You will be, too. 

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