Arguably one of the most prestigious and highly regarded professions, medicine is not for the faint of heart. But what does it take to be a doctor, exactly? It requires some serious intelligence and motivation to even get accepted into medical school. Not to mention the grit it takes to withstand the challenging years medical school requires.
But what does it take to actually succeed once you begin working in the field? What makes a good doctor? The answer to that depends on whom you ask.
The same determination and IQ it takes to make it through med school is certainly important. But there are a handful of lesser-known qualities needed to succeed. You’d be remiss to overlook the soft skills that allow the best doctors to flourish in the field.
We spoke with a few physicians to learn more about what makes a good doctor — and it’s not your medical school GPA. Keep reading to learn more about the role of physicians and what separates the good ones from the great ones.
7 Qualities the best doctors have in common
1. Good doctors are good communicators
“Being a good listener is critical to being a good doctor,” says Dr. John Madden, an Emergency Physician and Director of the Office of Career Guidance and Student Development at St. George’s University (SGU) School of Medicine. “Patients will tell you what’s wrong if you just let them speak.”
"Being a good listener is critical to being a good doctor."
Physicians often rush to interrupt patients in about seventeen seconds, Dr. Madden explains. But if they’d just sit back and listen to what their patients reveal, they may find the answer they’re looking for. After all, good communication isn’t just for being friendly with patients. It’s also a vital skill for doctors to understand their patients’ concerns and explain a diagnosis.
Dr. Lisa Doggett agrees that good communication skills are essential. “A doctor should give their patients the time they need and deserve. They should answer questions using language that is clear, without using too much medical terminology. They should be honest, but also offer hope, even when a situation is difficult. And they should help their patients feel empowered to improve their own health,” Dr. Doggett explains.
"They should help their patients feel empowered to improve their own health."
2. Good doctors are organized and conscientious
School children are taught from a young age to practice organization in order to be successful in school. And for good reason — one can’t succeed in medicine without presence of mind and being vigilant about details.
“A doctor needs to make sure that her patients get recommended screening tests, that their questions are answered, and that patients have a clear plan of action upon leaving her office,” says Dr. Doggett. “She must be vigilant about following up on any tests that are done and communicating those results.”
3. Good doctors make patients feel cared for
It doesn’t matter to patients if you were the top of your class, had a perfect GPA in medical school, or landed a prestigious residency. It doesn’t matter if you published award-winning journals or conducted ground-breaking research.
Patients want to feel that they are in good hands. What does it take to be a doctor who patients trust? A good physician knows how to make a patient feel as though they are being cared for, that their concerns are valid, and that they are being heard.
“Patients care more that their doctor actually cares for them than how many papers they've published,” says Dr. Edna Ma. “Caring can be in the form of active listening and asking open-ended questions.”
"The patient isn't just a list of medical problems and medications."
She goes on to explain that there are small things you can do to really make a patient feel valued. Things like asking questions about their job or family show them that you’re truly interested in them as a person. “The patient isn't just a list of medical problems and medications,” Dr. Ma says. “Even sitting during the conversation shows the patient they are a priority to the doctor.”
Making patients feel cared for is a way of building rapport and establishing good working relationships, another hallmark of a good doctor, Dr. Madden adds.
4. Good doctors are curious
When presented with befuddling symptoms, a good doctor should allow their inherent curiosity to lead them to an accurate diagnosis, even if it means tapping into resources they don’t usually need to come to a diagnosis.
"A good doctor should be willing to work to figure out what is going on."
“If a patient presents with unusual and worrisome symptoms, a good doctor should be willing to work to figure out what is going on,” Dr. Doggett says. “That may require extra research, reaching out to colleagues, or taking more time to gather a detailed history from the patient.”
A good doctor will take the time to follow their curiosity and uncover the answers for their patient’s sake, rather than rushing to a diagnosis too quickly.
“Too many doctors are eager to make a diagnosis and be done with it,” Dr. Doggett says. “This leads to missed and incorrect diagnoses.”
5. Good doctors work together to support patients
Just as a doctor needs to practice good communication with their patients, they also need it for relaying information across the health care system. This is especially true for doctors. When a patient goes to the hospital, their primary care physician often doesn’t learn of their visit unless they are informed by the patient or one of their family members.
“A good hospital-based doctor will call or sent a note to the primary care physician to let them know the patient has been admitted,” Dr. Doggett explains. “The primary care doctor should then make an effort to gather hospital records and offer timely follow-up after discharge.” Similarly, a good medical specialist will involve a patient’s primary care doctor in any diagnoses or treatments.
The best doctors understand that they are not a one-man show, but rather key players on the greater medical team. Being able to work well with others is imperative.
6. Good doctors advocate for their patients
Good doctors do whatever it takes to help their patients with whatever their health care needs require. Whether that means helping them navigate the health care system by finding specialists, or acquiring the prescriptions they need, they should be willing to provide that support.
"A good doctor will be a strong advocate for their patients."
“A good doctor will be a strong advocate for their patients,” Dr. Doggett says. She describes this as being willing to help patients get a prescription medicine approved, secure an urgent appointment for a test or with a specialist, enroll in a patient assistance program, or access necessary services like home health or physical therapy. The best doctors are willing to go the extra mile for their patients’ well-being.
7. Good doctors have great bedside manner
“What separates a good physician from a great one is their bedside manner,” Dr. Madden says. “Physicians should be personable, great listeners, and empathetic to the concerns of their patients. They should not be condescending or arrogant. They should treat others as they want to be treated.”
"Physicians should be personable, great listeners, and empathetic to the concerns of their patients."
Dr. Doggett believes that a good bedside manner is critical to establishing a trusting relationship between a doctor and their patients. “A good doctor will be professional, kind, and compassionate to everyone, including patients, their families, colleagues, and staff,” she explains.
The makings of a good doctor
So what makes a good doctor? As you can see, there is no single ingredient. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a doctor. But practicing these qualities will help put you on the path to a successful career in medicine, according to Dr. Madden. He recommends medical students finding a mentor in the field who possesses qualities they’d like to emulate in their career.
The traits listed above are all important elements of a good doctor, but they mean nothing if they aren’t accentuated by a true passion for the work. Hear from doctors about what keeps them motivated in our article, “Why Become a Doctor? MDs Share What They Love Most About Their Careers.”
Want to work in the medical field?Learn More