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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