If You Are a Doctor, Act Like One

Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be – Yours Truly

It cannot be said enough: Ours is a relationship based vocation. Unless you are doing autopsies for a living, you need to establish rapport with real, live human beings in need of something, with fears or suffering, with past experiences and future hopes.

As a doctor, I play some sort of role, small or big, in the life of every patient I see, for a single visit or over the course of many years.

I am only one person, but I have a vast repertoire of demeanors and vocal inflections, a rich vocabulary of medical and non-medical words and a well honed body language I can put to use in each patient encounter depending on what my patient needs in that moment.

One obvious role is to be the one who correctly diagnoses and treats each medical problem. But medicine is more complicated than that. We know that a physician’s behavior greatly influences medical outcomes, even for conditions that don’t appear to be psychosomatic.

Another role I often think, speak and write about is that of guide. In that role, we need to carefully balance our own authority with deference to our patient’s need to develop and maintain their own. Project too much confidence in your knowledge and experience and hold the patient back; project too little and be of no help at all.

When it comes to the lifestyle related epidemics of our time, we need to be the bellwether for our patients, not by preaching from a pedestal but from a position of a near equal, just one small step ahead. Never obese, I still carried more weight than I should, and I use my own fifteen pound weight loss journey as a peer-to-peer example.

When our patients face the end of life or tragedies of any kind, like it or not, we need to shoulder the priestly mantles many modern people need us to wear as they lack religious connection or foundation. In such cases, we need to seem a little bit above the trivialities of this world, which often makes no sense to those who suffer.

Oftentimes, in the maze of the healthcare bureaucracy that our patients find themselves lost within, we as doctors need to fill the role of advocates. We cannot ever give the impression, or think to ourselves, that we aren’t working for them. Without patients who believe we are on their side, where would we be? This one is probably the most important role we play in 2019.

Choosing how to behave in any given patient encounter is not “acting” in the sense of not being yourself. It is being tuned in to each patient in each instance and filling the need each one has. It is about not barging into the exam room with our own agenda all set. It is approaching each patient with an open mind, ready to listen:

“How can I help you today?”

2 Responses to “If You Are a Doctor, Act Like One”


  1. 1 Keith MacLellan April 20, 2019 at 4:20 pm

    ” All virtue is a form of acting.” – W.B. Yeats (or so it is said. I cannot find the actual poem)

    I hope you are enjoying Canadian RuralMed – and that it is not too much. Some on the list certainly appreciate you.

    Happy Easter. Keep your stick on the ice!


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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

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