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Medical Myths Medical Myths

What Makes a Good Doctor?

January 06, 2015

By Robert H. Shmerling M.D.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Seeing a doctor for the first time is a bit like going out on a blind date: There's no guarantee that even a highly recommended doctor will be right for you.

One reason — perhaps the biggest reason — is that people have different definitions of a good doctor. Finding a doctor whom you consider good starts with knowing what you value most in a doctor.

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What Does 'Good' Mean?

In my view, there are many ways a doctor can be good, so it's difficult to know what someone means when he or she says a doctor is good.

For some people, being a good doctor is all about bedside manner, personality and communication skills. Other people value smarts, technical skills or expertise in a particular condition. Still others rely on credentials, such as where a doctor went to medical school or residency training. I've even known patients who care little about these other factors and instead care most about how the office runs, how quickly the phone is answered or how friendly the receptionist is.

The type of doctor may also determine how a person defines a good doctor. For example, many people I know say they don't care about a surgeon's bedside manner as long as his or her patients have outstanding results. Yet those same people might say that a good bedside manner is much more important for their primary care physician.

Your particular medical problems may also be key to the type of doctor you want. A person with a rare disease may value a doctor's knowledge about that disease, rather than the doctor's personality or other factors.

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Role Models of Yesterday and Today

In the media and in pop entertainment, the "good doctor" is usually wise, patient and unhurried. Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby are good examples from long-running television shows during the 1960s and 1970s.

A more recent and notable exception is Dr. House, the unconventional and brilliant doctor on the television show of the same name. While we could debate whether he's actually a good doctor in the fullest sense, my guess is that few patients in the real world would tolerate his unprofessional behavior.

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What Qualities Make the Ideal Doctor?

If you could have it all, what qualities would your doctor possess? Ideally, they might include:

  • Kindness
  • Compassion
  • Intelligence
  • Humility
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Availability
  • Friendliness
  • A sense of humor

Perhaps you can think of other attributes that make a good doctor. But these would be a good start.

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How Smart Is Your Doctor?

Perhaps the biggest myth about a good doctor is this: They have to know it all. In my experience, rather than a doctor knowing a lot, it's more important for a doctor to know what he or she doesn't know, or to know when to ask for help.

Some of the smartest doctors I know have made serious errors, at least in part because they did not seek consultation from others. That's why I listed humility as a quality above. It's important to recognize your limitations. That's particularly true in medicine, because no one can ever know it all.

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The Bottom Line

The search for a good doctor is different for each person. Here's some general advice that might serve you well:

    • Who's talking? The recommendations of trusted friends, family or other doctors are worth a lot.
    • What are the doctor's credentials? Most states have a list of licensed physicians online with information about medical training and board certification. Some states even offer information about malpractice claims and disciplinary actions against a doctor.
    • How's the service? When you call for an appointment, is the person on the phone friendly, helpful and interested in your satisfaction?
    • How was the appointment? Did your doctor listen to you? Your doctor should answer your questions in a way that you understand and ask you if you have any other questions.
    • Did your doctor ask for your input? Communication about medical care should be a two-way street. The days of doctors telling patients what to do are long gone. Good doctors offer information and recommendations but honor the preferences of their patients. The only way to find out is to ask you what your preferences are.
  • Is your doctor ever in doubt? Your doctor should admit uncertainty. And there should be a "plan B" if things aren't going well. In some cases, this means getting a second opinion or referring you to a specialist for consultation.

If the answers regarding your doctor are positive, then you're a lucky patient indeed. You've found a good doctor. And that's no myth.

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Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.

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