A “good” doctor achieves the best possible outcomes for patients as well as the broader community (including family, of course!). So, what single quality can I point to that makes a doctor “good”?
The potential list of qualities is quite long: being authentic, broad-minded, calm, empathetic, humble, knowledgeable, non-judgemental, skilled, and so on. It does not include being funny or natty (though I wouldn’t deny that to a doctor if it makes their work more satisfying).
If I had to pick just one quality, it is curiosity.
But let me explain (as I often find myself saying – to the exasperation of my family and colleagues).
If your doctor was not curious then medical school would have been an immense bore, merely an accumulation of facts. Clinical training would be a grind without relief, with patients serving as a collection of signs and symptoms and diseases. Having drudged through those many years, practice would be no better.
On the other hand, if your doctor were curious, training would have been a grand party (though tiring) and practice a marvellous opportunity. Your doctor would listen to what you have to say and be interested in what you say and what it means. They would not pre-judge knowing that, from a position of curiosity, there are often (always) surprises. And with the knowledge base of medicine changing at an immensely rapid pace, they would be keen to be up to date.
And one more thing: the neuroscientists tell us that curiosity induces a virtuous cycle, promoting a sense of reward (of course, through dopamine), and continuous learning supports cognitive health.
So, from the quality of being curious, a doctor achieves all the other qualities that make a doctor good, and the joy that can make them great, even when they are old.
Professor David Matchar
Duke-NUS Programme in Health Services and Systems Research
Duke University Professor of Medicine and Pathology