What Makes One a Perfect Doctor?

I’m an ER doc. I spent my last two decades in the house of medicine. First, training to become a doctor. Then, trying to be a better doctor. But, no matter what, I’ve never been the perfect doctor. What makes one a perfect doctor? 

The perfect doctor lives in the moment, focusing on here and now: This patient. This case. This encounter. They devote their undivided attention and their energy to being present. They are up-to-date. Since medicine is always changing, the perfect doctor learns every day. They know about vaping, they know that kayexalate is a curse, not a treatment, and they’re ready to prescribe buprenorphine from the ED. They know everything they need to know, and a little more. They are curious, because there’s so much that we don’t know. We don’t even know what we don’t know. Curiosity opens the door to the miracles of the world.

The perfect doctor is often wrong. Being wrong allows you to learn. Those who are always right have nothing to learn. They are humble. Once you understand that your success is largely due to your DNA, the circumstances of your birth, and your luck, you’ll also understand that others are just as responsible for their failures as you are for your success. There but for the grace of God. They are hard on their opinions. As the Australian comedian Tim Michum said: “Opinions, like assholes, need to be examined regularly. Make sure yours are up-to-par.” 

They are kind. They know that anxiety, stress, and PTSD can be more deadly than many lethal diseases. They strive to provide hope and solace, even when they can’t cure. They listen. Sometimes people aren’t there to listen, they’re there to talk. They need to feel heard. The perfect doctor makes time to listen and speak to families, even when other patients are waiting to be seen, and grandma’s only here for her worsening dementia. They know that to her people she’s the one that matters. 

They support, respect, and nurture nurses. If doctors are the officers in the war against death, nurses are the soldiers laying it all on the line. Nurses get bit, kicked, and spat at. They have to deal with unkind patients, angry families, and arrogant doctors, often on an empty stomach and a full bladder. They need and deserve gratitude, love, and support. They treat grumpy consultants gingerly. Consultants are people, too. Sleep deprivation and being chained to a pager won’t make anyone a better person. And, for the good of your patient, sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. They teach kindly. They teach patients, families, nurses, interns, students, colleagues. It’s: "You remember that…" as opposed to: "Don’t you know that…" They respect everybody equally, from the CEO to the janitor. We are not what we do. We are who we are and we all deserve to be treated with respect. 

The perfect doctor forgives. They forgive the spitting, the four-letters words, the patient who lied to them. Forgiving makes you a better human and a better doctor. It’s hard to be a good doctor if you dislike your patients. They have a sense of humor. They laugh at situations, at life, at themselves. Laughing is a language everybody understands, even babies and pets. Laughing brings people together. They cry. Hurting for your patients will make you a better doctor. As my mentor, Dr. Greg Henry said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” 

The perfect doctors take care of themselves. A burned-out doctor is not a good doctor, like a burned-out bulb is not a good bulb. To care well for others, you first need to care for yourself. You are your most valuable resource. Don’t waste it. They find meaning in what they do, even when none is apparent. As Dr. Mel Herbert said: "Remember that what you do matters." They define themselves by what they love, not by what they hate. They focus on the good in people, on the great cases, on the lovely encounters. They bring a smile to people’s faces. 

The perfect doctor knows they aren’t perfect. Nobody is. Perfection doesn’t exist. Looking for perfection is like chasing the Holy Grail: It takes you far from what you love, and it never ends. 

Rada Jones, MD is an Emergency Physician in Upstate NY, where she lives with her husband, Steve, and his black deaf cat Paxil. She authored two ER thrillers: OVERDOSE and MERCY. Find more at RadaJonesMD.com. Dr. Jones is a 2019-2020 Doximity Fellow.

Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz

More from Op-Med