What makes a great doctor: a physician reflects

asco-logo I have been fortunate enough to find a home in academic medicine. Most of that time I’ve spent in oncology — working with residents, fellows, and colleagues on projects, whether they be chart-based or prospectively designed trials. I’ve lectured a ton, and written even more. Yet, my experience in academia has also allowed me to help choose future medical students, residents, and fellows, and this has perhaps been one of the most important aspects of the profession.

See, each time I am asked to interview a candidate, the same question goes through my mind: What will make a good doctor? What am I looking for? I suppose it dates back to when I was in college, knowing I wanted to be a doctor but not sure I had “the goods” to become one. I was a good student at a great university (go Rochester!), but I wasn’t top of my class, and perhaps worse, I really didn’t like some of the sciences, like chemistry and (especially) physics. What I loved were the humanities: English literature and religious studies. But, I thought, a doctor has to be human too, right? Application time came and went, and among the dozens of applications I sent out, I only got a handful of interviews. Obviously, this did nothing for my confidence. I still remember my first interviewer: he was an anesthesiologist and wanted only to discuss my performance on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and my science grades. As I left the room, he offered a piece of advice: “Even if you get in to medical school, you should retake the MCATs.” Ouch.

Miraculously (to me), I got into medical school, but with the elation came the impostor syndrome — the sense that a mistake had been made, and that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I remember the first day I put on a white coat. A day that should’ve been joyful filled me with anxiety, as I half-expected the dean to single me out and say, “You there — the short Pacific Islander. A mistake was made. Come with me, please … and leave the coat.” I don’t think anyone in my class knew of this paranoia I experienced (and if they did, they never let on), but it lasted for the entirety of medical school — even as I put on my doctoral gown and walked in my final procession to claim my “doctor of medicine” degree.

Frankly, the sense that I was an impostor made me study harder so I could prove — to myself — that I belonged. And I did belong. That sense of community became stronger through residency and stronger still as I finished my fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

When it comes to interviewing, I have to say, I’ve been shaped by my own experience. I am certain that while a good transcript is important, it’s not sufficient. In my 30 minutes alone with someone wanting “in,” I want a better sense of them. How they think, what motivates them, and what are their passions. The best interviews take me to places unexpected — whether it be discussing the role of palliative care for patients with sickle cell anemia or the current status of transgender health care in South Africa. I want to learn more about the person sitting in front of me. I guess ultimately, I want to see their humanity.

And I think that’s what makes a great doctor: compassion, empathy, perspective, and curiosity. Just as our patients are more than a diagnosis, those wanting to enter medicine are much more than a test score.

Don S. Dizon is an oncologist who blogs at ASCO Connection

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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