What does it mean to be a great doctor?

Like most existential questions, the answer to this question really depends on who you ask.

A patient may have one answer, and a physician a completely different response.

Ask ten people, and you’re likely to get ten different replies.

What does being a great doctor mean to you?

If you’re a doctor, this is an important question to ask yourself because your answers impact how you practice and interact with your patients. Even more importantly, they impact how you see yourself and how you feel about your work and your life on a daily basis.

The criteria that you have established, consciously or subconsciously, will have you comparing yourself to your ideal and judging whether you measure up or not.

Here are some criteria of a “great doctor” some women physicians have shared with me:

  • They are smart.
  • They read a lot.
  • They are up to date in their field.
  • They can diagnose any problem that comes their way.
  • They don’t have to look things up all the time; they just know.
  • They are seen as leaders in their field.
  • They teach.
  • They are well-liked by their patients and their colleagues.
  • They have excellent patient reviews.
  • They have excellent peer and supervisor reviews.
  • They are great communicators.
  • They are great listeners.
  • They can manage many different things at the same time.
  • They publish a lot.
  • They can manage a successful career and a family.
  • Their patients have great outcomes.
  • They don’t get sued.
  • They don’t get patient complaints.

Now, try making your own list.

Would any of the criteria above be on your list?

Which criteria would you add or change?

Now look back at your list.

Are they mostly inner-focused or outer-focused?

Inner-focused criteria are those that you have control over in terms of your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and are possible to achieve.

Outer-focused criteria are those that you have little to no control over and are dependent on someone or something else in order to happen.

Have you set yourself up for failure?

If your definition of greatness as a physician relies on factors outside of your control, then how you feel about yourself and your work is going to be directly tied to how others view you.

For instance, when you get a positive patient review, you’re going to feel much better about yourself than if you get a negative one. Rather than seeing the patients’ review as a reflection of them and their mind, you will see it as a reflection of your identity.

While this is very common and may seem very normal, it is actually a big problem because it creates a disempowering day-to-day experience of your life. It is also much more likely to lead to stress and overwhelm and even burnout.

When you give others the power to control your emotions, you hand over responsibility for what is always within your control.

Changing your definition of success and greatness

What if you defined your success or greatness as a doctor mainly by factors that you can control, such as the way you show up for your patients?

For example, greatness could mean:

  • I treat each patient with dignity and respect.
  • I focus all my attention on the person in front of me and try to minimize distractions.
  • I try to understand their condition the best I can.
  • I look up what I don’t know or don’t understand or ask someone who does.
  • I find out what is the best method of communication for my patient and communicate in that way.
  • I remain curious and compassionate throughout my encounters.
  • I allow them to ask questions.
  • I remain open and curious rather than closed off.

Setting yourself up for success

By redefining greatness to inner-focused criteria, now you have set yourself up for success. You have made it possible to have a realistic and useful process of evaluation and improvement.

If the majority of your criteria for greatness are factors that you can control, then if you find that you’ve fallen short in one of these areas, you can actually do something about it.

If most of your criteria for success are outer-focused and outside your control, then your success is dependent on others, the outside world, or pure luck. It is a powerless and discouraging place to be.

How to know you’ve reached a goal

Some goals, such as weight loss, for instance, are easy to know when success has been reached. If your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will know you’ve reached your goal when the scale shows ten pounds less than when you started.

But many goals are not so clear.

Am I a successful or great parent? Spouse? Boss? Employee? Physician?

Your definition of success or greatness will determine the answer to these questions.

Your definition reflects how you want to see yourself and will impact the most important relationship you have in your life – the one with yourself.

The more control you have over your success, the more you will build your self-trust and self-confidence.

The less control you have, however, the weaker your self-trust and self-confidence become.

When you choose a goal, be sure to define the criteria for success. Choose criteria that you can actually meet and are within your control.

By doing this, you will achieve three things:

  • You will know whether you’ve reached your goal or not.
  • If you fail to reach your goal or come up short, you will know exactly what to do to get there and be able to do it.
  • You will strengthen your relationship with yourself and have a more empowered and satisfying experience of your life.

Those who are empowered are more likely to empower others.

That sounds like a pretty great formula for success.

Sofia Dobrin is a neurologist and physician life coach.

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