What it takes to be called a great doctor: a patient’s perspective

Let me begin by extending my gratitude to all physicians who have served our country during this time of the coronavirus pandemic. During this trying time, your dedication and service have given a sense of stability and confidence in our health care systems at a time filled with so much uncertainty and turmoil.

As a member of the “Baby Boomer” generation, I’ve seen my fair share of physicians over the years. Since I have more than one chronic condition, I’m a fairly regular visitor to my primary care office. Thankfully, there are many good doctors, but what does it take to be called a great doctor? What follows is my criteria, but I think it represents fairly the distinction needed to attain this title. Several distinguishing characteristics set this doctor above the usual, and I will discuss them in no particular order.

This doctor considers his patient more than an individual with a disease, more than a compilation of data in an EHR. During the office visit, the doctor makes an effort to become acquainted with his patients- their hobbies, support system at home, and life goals. The doctor may, at times, share a little about himself with the patient. This encourages the patient to think of the physician as a “real” human being, with similar frailties that we all share. This goes a long way in building a bond of trust between doctor and patient.

When the patient sits before the doctor during an office visit, this doctor gives the patient his full attention. He focuses on the patient rather than the computer screen and data entry. When the doctor must reference data from the computer, he shares the screen with the patient, making him/her part of the process. In contrast, if a physician is typing on a computer keyboard most of the office visit rather than carrying on a direct dialog with the patient, the patient feels almost invisible.  Please look directly at the patient when talking. Sit opposite the patient rather than towering above him/her.  Be actively involved in what is transpiring between the two of you. An occasional smile wouldn’t hurt either!

This doctor is very knowledgeable in his fields of interest and is confident in his skills to diagnose and treat. Such a trait is reassuring for the patient. This physician is constantly keeping abreast of new advances and research studies that will improve his patients’ level of care. At the same time, he is willing to seek out the expertise of colleagues who might possess a more expansive knowledge base in a specialty area. Whenever possible, this doctor is willing to advocate for his patient to find the root cause of the patient’s health issue. By doing this, he can potentially improve the outcome for his patient.

Whether they be a homeless diabetic patient or an affluent attorney with migraine headaches, all patients are given the same level of care and respect from this physician. The patient is never dealt with condescendingly, but rather the doctor understands the patient’s vulnerability and makes every effort to bring the best in care to each individual.

This doctor realizes that the doctor-patient relationship is a partnership. In the telling and the listening, a solid relationship is built between the two. By listening sincerely to the patient’s story, the patient’s viewpoint is recognized and validated, and the physician’s medical plan for his patient is more widely accepted. There is an interplay between the two, leading to a fuller understanding on both sides. Mutual respect is a crucial link.

The great doctor is both empathetic and compassionate. For example, this physician understands what it is like to receive a diagnosis of cancer- the anger, the disbelief, and the helplessness experienced by his patient. Simultaneously, the doctor attempts to find ways to make the situation a bit better by attempting to alleviate his patient’s pain or situation. Sometimes as patients, we need to feel that someone is on our side, that someone “has our back.”

This doctor is an example of what he espouses. If a doctor advises his patient on the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise, then the physician should be an example of putting that principle into action. Actions speak louder than words. One leads by example, or to put it another way, one heals by example.

The great doctor realizes there is a sacred trust placed between himself and his patient. He realizes that the responsibility of caring for the health and well-being of another is a privilege and his actions on behalf of his patient reflect this.

A physician having the above attributes stands out among his colleagues. His patients are loyal followers since they know that the level of care given to the very first patient on the day’s schedule is the same quality as that for his last patient. These physicians are, indeed, treasures for any health care system. They are highly respected by their colleagues and are leaders and innovators within their health communities. As a patient, I entrust my very life to their care.

Postscript

Over the past decade, the corporatization of health care has profoundly affected the practice of medicine. In an effort for expansiveness, physicians and nursing staff have often been casualties of the process many times. They are overworked and undervalued as they struggle to overcome the burdens laid upon their shoulders. They have been calling for improvements and representation in a system that has largely turned a deaf ear. Patients, at times, become indirect casualties in this turmoil.

In this unparalleled time of the pandemic that we are experiencing, the sacrifices made by our frontline staff should continue to be recognized and applauded by the public and by the administrators of health systems. Without their sacrifices, we all would be doomed by this murderous virus.

When this time has passed, and I pray it will, let no one forget the effort put forth by our health care workers. When their face masks and face shields have been put aside, allow them to voice at the corporate table to express their concerns and have their concerns, more importantly, acted upon. A health care staff that feels valued is a positive force, benefitting patients’ care and the institutions they represent.

Michele Luckenbaugh is a patient. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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