Can doctors have personalities? I get this question a lot, or, rather, I get told by patients as a running joke that physicians typically lack the fun gene. Understandably, we have dedicated our youth to the medical profession and have missed out on most of our twenties and thirties by completing rigorous training and building our new careers to where we do lose a crucial time in early adulthood development. While many of our peers in our social circles from high school and college were beginning new jobs, taking time off between college and the next venture, dating, getting married, starting families, or doing anything else to learn, fail, grow and transition through young adulthood, we went straight from books to even more books. For most medical students, we studied multiple hours a day or even all night. We missed weddings, funerals, family celebrations, and other important life events of our close friends and family to successfully complete our training. We worked arduously to advance to the top of our educational pillars, and very little time was left for personal growth, let alone additional socialization. Still, though, I believe we are not stereotypically book smart and socially street inept as I have often been told. Rather, I believe physicians are expected to be perceived this way, which I hope to change.
I am not suggesting martyrdom because many of us “missed out on our twenties.” I made a choice to go into this profession, and I am grateful for it daily, so my message is not to complain or ask for commiseration, but rather to explore the concept that we have been conditioned to expect physicians to be somber and stoic and even criticize them if they have fun in their practices or unveil part of their social lives. Therein lies the double-edged scalpel: have too little a personality, then patient satisfaction and reviews go down; have too much of a personality, and professionalism and intelligence are called into question. Take social media, for example. I have seen a multitude of comments on other physicians’ pages as well as plenty of comments on my own platforms telling me to “get back to work,” that “doctors shouldn’t have personalities. I want my doctor to be smart, not have fun,” and even that “I wouldn’t trust my doctor if they were having fun.”
Why can’t physicians be allowed to be human, too? Why can’t we be encouraged to show our humor, our expressiveness, our unique interests, or certain aspects of our social lives? Some of my most valuable patient interactions had happened when I did exactly that: I let my professional guard down and just became a person. I have gotten caught dancing in the hallway by too many patients to count and then kept on dancing or encouraged them to join in; I’ve had patients finish the rest of the line to a 2000s pop song I was belting out as I walk into their room—and the tension always eases, they smile and laugh and open up and let me listen to more than just their chief complaints. We share memories over the song, and then I listen to as much “personal, this has nothing to do with my appointment stuff” as they want to tell me . . . and I love listening and learning from them. They trust me as a friend, as a fellow kindred being, and they open up as much as they need without fear of judgment. It allows me to then begin an open-ended conversation where I may sit down, focus on their medical concerns and treat their conditions with the highest level of scientific evidence-based care I strive to provide. This is what I consider the best form of healing: bridging science and human connection.
Medical care isn’t compromised because I show my personality; it is amplified because I get a better picture of all the patient’s needs when they feel relaxed and comfortable to tell me anything on their mind. As a physician, we strive to treat the whole person and not just the symptom that brought them in that day. That is true healing.
When I teach medical students who rotate with me at my clinic, I ask them to write about the single most negative and single most positive emotional experiences they have had in their 3 to 4 years of training thus far. Commonly, I see fear as a negative emotion and pride in self-worth as the positive. When we break it down, their fear often stems from not knowing if they did a good enough job working up a tough case. The students talk about facts, etiologies, treatment plans, and what could have been done better clinically. Interestingly, their positive emotion of self-worth is often described as the patient thanking them or even hugging them after they shared stories and bonded that they both like wake surfing, went to the same Metallica concert, exchanged jokes or photos of their same breed of dog or that the patient reminded them of their grandparent and they just sat and talked about their families. After describing the case, students usually do not mention disease, workup, or treatment with me this time. In fact, very little medical terminology is used when I ask why this experience was so positive, and the words I do hear are usually centered on how they felt bonded with the patient after learning something they have in common. What beauty lies in this space when doctor and patient connect.
I hope that in continuing to dance, sing and genuinely get to know my patients through sharing experiences, as well as encouraging future physicians to shine in their personalities, we can reset the expectation that physicians must only be scientific and not social. After all, when we integrate the two, our human connection and whole-person care will be amplified, indeed.
Erika Visser Aragona is a family physician.
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