What is the most important trait in a doctor?

Medical errors are estimated to be the third leading cause of death in America’s hospitals. Though some of these errors are beyond physician control, many are the direct result of physician action and inaction. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to reduce these errors and I (like many of my peers) lose sleep over the mistakes I witness.

When you ask patients what quality is most important in a physician, they often answer, “empathy.” I think that’s close, but not quite right. I know many “nice” and “supportive” doctors who have poor clinical judgment. When it comes to excellent care quality, one personality trait stands out to me — something that we don’t spend much time thinking about:

Curiosity.

A physician with a curious mind doesn’t necessarily know all the answers. He may not be the “smartest” graduate of his medical school.  But he is a great detective, and doesn’t rest until problems are solved. This particular quality isn’t nurtured in a system that rewards partial work ups, rapid patient turnover, and rushed documentation. But some doctors retain their intellectual curiosity about their patients — and to the extent that they do, I believe they can significantly reduce medical errors.

Many of the preventable adverse events I have witnessed (outside of procedure-based errors) began with warning signs that were ignored. Examples include abnormal lab tests that were not followed up in a timely manner, medication side effects that went unrecognized, copy errors in drug lists, and subtle changes in the physical exam that were presumed insignificant. All of these signs trigger the curious mind to seek out answers in time to head off problems before they evolve into real dangers.

Of course, there are other qualities that make a physician excellent: wisdom, experience, kindness, and a grounding in evidence-based practice come to mind. But without an engaged mind fueled by genuine curiosity, it’s hard to retain the vigilance required for continued good outcomes.

Curiosity may have killed a cat or two, but I’ve seen it save a large number of patients.

Val Jones is founder and CEO, Better Health.

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