The following post first appeared on KevinMD, a popular medical blog. My mom wrote me the following letter during my first semester in medical school. She has been a patient, and a mother/wife/sister/daughter of patients. She has been around countless doctors. Here is her take on what makes a great one: Dear Son,
I am so very proud that you are becoming a physician and that you chose this profession, not for the prestige or the financial advantages, but because you want to help people.
You invested an unfathomable amount of your time, energy and money to become a doctor. Your patients are extremely grateful for your commitment to be the best health care provider for them, even if they never voice these words.
Being a great doctor requires more than years of medical education and thousands of hours spent in residency. You need to be trustworthy for your patients and in turn you need to trust them.
Remember that you will help those with more and with less education than you. You will treat people with more and with less money than you. You will aid patients that are very similar to you and those that couldn’t be more different. You must be trustworthy to each and every one of them. What do they have in common? They need you.
Your title and your knowledge may give you a presumed power over your patients. Always respect that power and never think so highly of yourself that you make your patients feel inferior. Remember when someone is in need, that someone is vulnerable. Don’t dishonor that vulnerability. Be kind. Be patient. Keep their secrets. If you don’t know how to treat someone, be honest and refer that patient to another physician. Your ego is never as important as your patients’ health.
You must be trustworthy so that your patient can feel safe enough to tell you what is really going on. When I was only 17, I exhibited some scary health symptoms for a teenager. However this fear is present in all patients when their body is not doing what it is supposed to do.You need to remember that fear in patients and respect it. To tell my mom what was going on with me was scary enough, but being able to tell my doctor was beyond terrifying. My physician was so kind, and so honest about what procedures I needed to have done and why I needed them done. He treated me with respect. He treated me as an adult. He was trustworthy. I am eternally grateful to him.
Sometimes, things are going on in a family that can affect the health of everyone even if there are no bruises, blood or fever. My mother was a battered wife. My stepfather beat her regularly. He inflicted pain that did not cause external scarring so no one would know what was going on. I told my grandmother and other relatives; they believed me, but no one could convince my mother to leave him for more than a few days at a time. I told someone with authority, my pastor, what was going on at home. He did not believe the teenage girl I was then. My pastor did not help my mother. You need to trust that teenage girl. No, not everyone will be honest with you. But, still you must trust. I am not saying don’t try to verify. But, don’t become so cynical that your instinct is to question and deny. You may save that battered woman. You may help heal her whole family. My mother is safe now but I will always remember the pastor that turned his head at my pleas for help.
So my son, my pride for you is beyond measure. My words are inadequate to describe my awe of what you have accomplished in your life. But as moms are wont to do, I am going to offer you some advice as you get closer and closer to becoming a doctor.
Be trustworthy and trust in both your professional and your personal life. Sometimes you will get hurt. That happens when you trust people. But, please realize your patients are also hurting and they need to trust in you. They are vulnerable. You can only create the openness they need to reveal their secrets to you if they feel that you understand them, and you won’t judge them. Being trustworthy and trusting others are the keystones to being a great doctor. Never lose your faith in people and in a power greater than your own. These things are crucial to being a good person, and you can’t be a good physician if you are not first a good person.