Does a stereotypical surgical personality exist?

by Shawn Vuong

Recently, our class learned and practiced how to correctly ‘scrub’ for surgery. During this little lab activity, we were all gowned up and washing our hands when a couple of classmates asked if I was going to be a surgeon.

I said I didn’t really know yet, although I did find surgery pretty fascinating. With that, they told me that they thought I would make a good surgeon. due to the fact that I always seemed calm and collected, but at the same time confident enough to tell people what to do. I told my classmates that the act I’m pulling has them fooled, and I continued on with the lab. But it got me thinking, what is the surgical personality and do I have it?

The stereotypical surgical personality is said to be “decisive, well organised, practical, hard working, but also cantankerous, dominant, arrogant, hostile, impersonal, egocentric, and a poor communicator.”

I think that I am decisive, organized, practical, and hard working. But am I cantankerous, arrogant, hostile, impersonal and egocentric? I hope not. I can admit that my communication probably needs work. I think I’ll give my self the benefit of the doubt, and rate my communication and ‘average’ instead of ‘poor’.

So there it is, I am half the surgical personality according to the stereotype (in my eyes — maybe everyone else thinks I am hostile and egocentric and thus fit the stereotype perfectly).

I’ve met a few surgeons, and it sure doesn’t seem like they all fit the stereotype. Does every surgeon have this personality or is it a few bad apples setting up the reputation for the profession?

I personally think that some of this mean surgeon reputation may come from the residency training. A tired, overworked resident may snap at a surgical tech or nurse and then they are just another hostile surgeon. It could be that some of these bad habits that are picked up in residency stay with attendings, and then this stereotype gets perpetuated.

It has been argued that the military-like leadership of a surgeon must exist in order for an OR to run. In today’s ORs, this strategy for operating is actually counter-productive, and may lead to more mistakes. Many studies have shown that the surgical personality really can’t be measured or pinned down, because maybe it doesn’t really exist. Some other studies conclude that the surgical personality does exist but it’s not to the extreme that the stereotype plays it out to be. They conclude that novelty seeking, competitive, reward dependent, extroverted-thinking types, who score high in activity traits, self discipline, and achievement, while scoring low in compliance and vulnerability tend to be surgical types (note that many of these studies concluded this data, but not to a significant difference from the general population).

Obviously a stereotype is just a stereotype and not everyone is going to fit it. Surgeons out there can be personable and nice, just like they can be mean and hostile. Do I have the surgical personality? Maybe, but one could argue that many medical students fit that hard working, competitive mold or we wouldn’t have gotten into medical school. Will my ‘surgical personality’ push me towards a career in surgery? Only time will tell.

Shawn Vuong is a medical student who blogs at Medically Mind Numbing.

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  • bongi

    a typical surgical personality is definitely a reality.

  • Alice

    Shawn, you will do well with whatever specialty you choose… have empathy and you are smart. Our “brilliant” surgeon doesn’t fit the stereotype either. We really like him too!

    In truth, a lot of the mean labels about surgeons come from nurses. Before surgery my surgical nurse friend told me stories about arrogance (and mistakes) in the OR that just about raised the hair on the back of my neck. Then I read Atul Gawande’s book on surgical complications and our surgeon received an e-mail from me…..I wasn’t just scared…….I was bloody-well terrified! He understood. Of course, Dr. Gawande doesn’t fit the stereotype either. I tend to think there is something in the water in Boston that makes doctors like Gawande and the beloved Dr. Groopman confess to their errors and expose the dark side of medicine most patients knew about….but were unable to have concrete proof unless a lawsuit was launched. And their exposing of these errors can only help patients, and that’s really what it’s all about.

    Shawn it was just so good to come online and see your article.

  • Skeptical Scalpel

    I agree this was a well-written piece. I am sorry to say there are still surgeons who fit the stereotype. But as is the case with all stereotypes and generalizations, there are also many exceptions. Surgeons who are reasonable, thoughtful and communicative can be found if you look. Shawn, you sound like you just might make a good surgeon some day. Good luck.

  • Dr Lemmon

    Typical surgeon’s breakfast is a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

    The basic personality of most surgeons is the one you described. But there are the aggressive ones and if I feel my patient needs surgery immediately I refer to the aggressive variety. If the patient needs evaluated and watched, I refer to the less aggressive variety.

  • Dawn

    I’ve been fortunate to have a surgeon who is no-nonsense, but personable and actually quite humble and kind. She is passionate about medicine and about quality care. She is indeed a perfectionist (which I want). I imagine that to be a good surgeon you have to be perfectionistic. I think as a result, there is little tolerance for lapses, delays, and excuses.

  • Bonnie

    After 30 years in Pediatrics I have had several encounters with surgeons. The surgical residents of various specialties I trained with at the time were wonderful, and still are, have never heard a bad word about them. Most surgeons I have dealt with are great. The only exception is some orthopedic surgeons, enough of them to think there are too many who think the can belittle a patient or a medical colleague. Most recently I accompanied my daughter to see a hand surgeon. She asked that I join her in the room since her memory is not good. The doctor ignored me and did not even make eye contact with my daughter.

  • Joe

    The negative parts of a surgeon’s personality develop through the surgical residency training and into their attending practices.

  • tex

    I am a surgeon and I think the stereotype is mostly accurate. The OR is an intimidating arena to command and if you are meek, you just don’t last very long. A surgeon does not need to be an a@#$$hole to command the OR, he needs to be a natural leader and any natural leader has these traits. To be soft spoken and commanding can coexist very nicely when the competence and surgical skill are obvious to the entire OR team. It’s the less skilled, less confident jerks that give us a bad rep.

    I’ll never forget that I was told as a high school senior that I did not have the personality for a doctor because my aptitude test showed me to be a risk taking personality!! That’s a surgeon!!

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