How do we define a good doctor? By the number of letters after her name? By the school that he went to? The number of plaques on the office wall? How much money they make or cars they drive or the part of town in which they practice? Perhaps.
In my experience, the definition of a good doctor lies outside of these materialistic concerns. Rather, a good doctor has certain characteristic emotional and intellectual traits.
The doctor I call a "good" doctor has an insatiable curiosity. He is interested in the details. Why is this person coming to see me today? What is it that is different about this person from the last time I saw her? What is it that she is trying to communicate with me? That little spot on her neck looks different somehow; why is that? Her mood and posture are changed from the last three visits -- what is happening in her personal life? And how is that affecting her physiology?
This curiosity stems from a deep-seated need to understand the life process, and what causes it to go awry, a compulsion to understand and integrate the human condition. This doctor, above all, wants to know the entire context of the life of this individual who has placed herself in his care.
The good doctor knows how to communicate. Not in the way they might teach in medical school, where you learn to feed back the words the patient tells you in order to fool her into believing that you are listening. This doctor really does listen, and mentally files and indexes the words of the patient, searching for patterns, clues, frameworks of behavior and thought which might lead to an answer to the question at hand:
"Doctor, what's wrong with me?"
She makes you feel as if you're the only patient she has. When you talk to this physician, there are no interruptions, no references to self. The way she behaves with you is individually tailored to make the interaction as comfortable and productive as possible. This doctor speaks your language, both verbally and physically.
With this physician, you never "fail to respond to a treatment." It's the treatment that fails you. You are not "non-compliant," but rather, the treatment does not weave itself elegantly into the tapestry of your life. You are never made to feel guilty, because this healer understands you, or, if not, wants to understand how to make your life better.
He knows the power of belief, and the magic in faith. The good doctor never belittles you for your lack of understanding of the "scientific method." He utilizes the powers of ritual and suggestion. He is fully aware of his facilitator role, and that any credit for the healing process goes to the person who actually did the healing -- the patient.
Our good doctor is a well trained scientist. But she understands that science is a tool for understanding, and not a religion or belief system that excludes all others. She knows that just because she's never heard of something before, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist or won't work. She readily admits that you are completely different from everybody else in the world, and that indeed, yours may well be the very first case. She knows medicine, but she also knows that you know your body better than anyone else ever can, because you live with it and in it twenty-four hours a day.
The good doctor touches his patients. Not the perfunctory slap on the back when you're on your way out the door. This is a purposeful touch, meant to communicate an emotion of optimism and faith. A touch aimed at transformation rather than information.
She studies not only the latest scientific advances, but also the history of medicine, and realizes that many of today's "new findings" were first advanced fifty to a hundred years ago. She is available, day or night, should you become ill at inconvenient times.
Do you know a good doctor? If so, share that knowledge with those people important in your life. The exigencies of profit-based managed care have led to an exodus of many of the best from the profession, and those few which remain are precious finds.
If you don't know a good doctor, seek one out. When you meet the right physician for you, both lives are changed. The good doctor is truly your doctor, and the relationship continues for the rest of both your lives. Ask around, question friends and "audition" possible candidates for the job. Don't settle for just any doctor. You deserve a good one, because your health matters.
Thomas W. Shinder, M.D., M.C.P., is a neurologist-turned-computer systems engineer who practiced medicine in Texas, Oregon and Arkansas before moving to his present home in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas metropolitan area.
email Thomas at:
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