I’m an ER doc, and I spent my last two decades in the house of medicine. First, training to become a doctor. Then, trying to be a better doctor. No matter how hard I tried, I’ve never been the “perfect doctor.” I started wondering: what makes one a “perfect doctor”?
The perfect doctor lives in the moment, focusing on the here and now: This patient. This case. This encounter. They devote their undivided attention and their energy to being present, putting everything else aside for now — the Press-Ganey, the kid’s soccer game, the fact they are working the seventh in a string of ten.
The perfect doctor is up-to-date. Since medicine is always changing, the perfect doctor learns every day. They know about vaping, they know that kayexalate is a curse, not a treatment, and they’re ready to prescribe Buprenorphine from the ED. They know everything they need to know, and a little more. They are curious since there’s so much that we don’t know. We don’t even know what we don’t know. Curiosity opens the door to the miracles of the world.
The perfect doctor is often wrong since being wrong allows you to learn. Those who are always right have nothing to learn.
The perfect ER doc is efficient and chooses wisely. They don’t do consecutive workups on the same patient, while the waiting room overflows with sick people fixing to die. The perfect ER doc chooses wisely and takes well-calculated risks.
They are humble. Once you understand that your success is largely due to your DNA, the circumstances of your birth, and your luck, you’ll also understand that others are just as responsible for their failures as you are for your success. There but for the grace of God go I.
They are hard on their opinions. As the Australian comedian, Tim Michum said: “Opinions, like assholes, need to be examined regularly. Make sure yours are up to par.”
They are kind. They know that anxiety, stress, and PTSD can be more deadly than many lethal diseases, and they strive to provide hope and solace, even when they can’t cure.
They listen. Sometimes people aren’t there to listen; they’re there to talk and need to feel heard. The perfect doctor makes time to listen and speak to families, even when other patients are waiting to be seen, and grandma’s only here for her worsening dementia. They know that, to her people, she’s the one that matters.
They support, respect, and nurture nurses. If doctors are the officers in the war against death, nurses are the soldiers laying it all on the line. Nurses get bit, kicked, and spat at. They have to deal with unkind patients, angry families, and arrogant doctors, often on an empty stomach and a full bladder. They need and deserve gratitude, love, and support.
The perfect doctor treats grumpy consultants gingerly. Consultants are people too. Sleep deprivation and being chained to a pager won’t make anyone a better person. And, for the good of your patient, sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
The perfect doctor teaches, kindly. They teach patients, families, nurses, interns, students, colleagues. It’s: You remember that…” as opposed to: “Don’t you know that…”
They respect everybody equally, from the CEO to the janitor. We are not what we do. We are who we are, and we all deserve respect.
The perfect doctor forgives. They forgive the spitting, the four-letters words, the patient who lied to them. Forgiving makes you a better human and a better doctor. It’s hard to be a good doctor if you dislike your patients.
The perfect doctor has a sense of humor. They laugh at situations, at life, at themselves. Laughing is a language everybody understands, even babies and pets. Laughing brings people together.
They cry. Hurting for your patients will make you a better doctor. As my mentor, Dr. Greg Henry said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
They take care of themselves. A burned-out doctor is not a good doctor like a burned-out bulb is not a good bulb. To care well for others, you first need to care for yourself. You are your most valuable resource. Don’t waste it.
The perfect doctor finds meaning in what they do, even when none is apparent. As Dr. Mel Herbert said: “Remember that what you do matters.”
They define themselves by what they love, not by what they hate. They focus on the good in people, on the great cases, on the lovely encounters. They bring a smile to people’s faces.
The perfect doctor knows they aren’t perfect. Nobody is. Perfection doesn’t exist. Looking for perfection is like chasing the Holy Grail: It takes you far from what you love, and it never ends.
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