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In an evolving profession what does it take to be a good doctor?

27 September 2018 | Sara Alamyar, Avant Student Advisory Council member, medical student, University of Sydney, NSW

From the moment I started medical school I was asked the question – “What kind of doctor would you like to be?”

As a medical student, I often find myself thinking about my personality traits and wonder if they are the right ones to become that ‘good doctor’ in my chosen speciality. 

As I progress through medical school, new challenges in the profession and how I deal with these are changing, so naturally the premise of what makes a good doctor is evolving. Which then poses the question – will I ever fully understand what being a good doctor actually means?

The ancient profession

The medical profession is one of the oldest in the world and graduating medical students in Australia even declare their commitment to the profession, their patients, and humanity through the World Medical Association's Declaration of Geneva, a contemporary companion to the 2,500-year-old Hippocratic Oath1.

While some parts of the oath have not aged well, maintaining patient confidentiality and acting in a way that does not harm our patients, remains a central concept to what it takes to be good doctor.

Make a difference

Medicine gives us the opportunity to make a significant impact to our communities, by serving our patients.

Living in such a diverse country, we are fortunate to study and work with many different cultures. Being exposed to these different cultures will put us in good stead when we are treating patients from different backgrounds to our own.

Safeguard our own health

There has been a long held view that a good doctor should cope with pressure, work long hours, never experience mental illness and if they do, never admit it!

Sadly though, The Beyond Blue National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students in 2013 revealed doctors have higher rates of psychological distress and suicide attempts than the general population. Approximately 40% of doctors and students felt that medical professionals with a history of mental health disorders were perceived as less competent than their peers2.

Hopefully the tide is turning, with self-care and mental health a key focus of our medical studies. Initiatives like #crazysocks4docs day are also seeking to combat the stigma surrounding mental health conditions and encourage doctors to be more open about mental illness.  

Practise safely

The safety of patients is fundamental to a doctor’s role and ideally a good doctor would never make mistakes. Unfortunately, the reality is that even good doctors make mistakes – it’s the reason Avant has been around for over 125 years.

It’s important that we recognise and understand the importance of reflection when mistakes are made and we work constructively to improve upon them.

Self-reflection and de-briefing has been incorporated in to my studies and it’s part of the Medical Board of Australia’s Profession Performance Framework. However, the recent case of UK paediatric registrar Dr Bawa-Garba, who was convicted of medical negligence manslaughter, has shone a light on the use of doctor’s reflective statements and has caused concern amongst the profession.

Avant advocates on the importance of preserving a culture of open disclosure and how we can safeguard it in the medical profession. Furthermore, the Avant Foundation has been established with the goal of furthering research, education and leadership in important areas of quality, safety and professionalism.

Final thoughts

There will always be certain elements that are essential to being a good doctor. These include coping under pressure without believing you are indestructible, and promoting a supportive culture.

As medical students, and eventually doctors, we need to be open to admitting and reflecting upon our mistakes, even though they may put us in a vulnerable position.

Being a good doctor may be challenging in the ever-changing world of medicine, but it remains worth it.

Tips to make medical school easier

1. Take advantage of as many different learning opportunities as you can – they can help make you a more well-rounded person and a better doctor.

2. Study less but often, rather than trying to cram in too much in a short period of time.

3. Remain flexible and open to trying new strategies, if what you are currently doing isn’t working well.

4. Have a realistic plan for what you want to achieve each day or week and prioritise, but accept that life is likely to get in the way no matter how good your plan is.

5. Accept that you will make mistakes and practice constructive self-reflection.

6. Everything is a learning experience that you can extract something productive from, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.

7. Maximise your time where you can – if you have a long commute, have some flashcards or other material to look over.

8. Always keep the bigger picture in mind and remind yourself that what you are learning can make you a better doctor.

More information

Avant’s Doctors’ Health and Wellbeing website provides resources and advice tailored specifically to the needs of Australian doctors.

Avant’s Medico-legal Advisory Service provides expert advice to help minimise the chance of a complaint or claim occurring via email: nca@avant.org.au or call 1800 128 268 for expert advice, 24/7 in emergencies.

References

Australian Medical Association, AMA Adopts WMA Declaration of Geneva, 28 September 2006,  viewed 4 September 2018, https://ama.com.au/media/ama-adopts-wma-declaration-geneva

Beyondblue, National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students, October 2013, viewed 5 September 2018, https://www.beyondblue.org.au/docs/default-source/research-project-files/bl1132-report---nmhdmss-full-report_web

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