What Makes a Doctor Truly Great


This one skill separates the good from the great.

Fam Pract Manag. 2018 Nov-Dec;25(6):40.

Author disclosure: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.

Copyright © 2018 Kenny Lin, MD, MPH.

Although most commencement addresses are forgettable, I can think of two exceptions. First, my high school commencement speaker, a television news anchor and former graduate, delivered a great speech that I still remember more vividly than the addresses by bigger names at my college, medical school, and public health graduations. Second, author and surgeon Atul Gawande, MD, delivered a profoundly insightful address1 earlier this year to medical school graduates at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Gawande's speech got me thinking about what makes a doctor great. It's worth reading in its entirety, but the point he drove home is that in a time when discrimination and unequal treatment2 have become as socially acceptable in some circles as in the pre-American Civil Rights era, it remains the sacred calling of medicine to recognize that all lives have equal worth, and that doctors and patients share a “common core of humanity.”

“Without being open to their humanity, it is impossible to provide good care to people — to ensure, for instance, that you've given them enough anesthetic before doing a procedure,” Gawande said. “To see their humanity, you must put yourself in their shoes. That requires a willingness to ask people what it's like in those shoes. It requires curiosity about others and the world beyond your boarding zone.”

Curiosity. If medicine were only about the science of the human body in health and disease, I would never have become a family doctor. Fortunately, that isn't so; in fact, after years of practice I often feel that the science has become incidental to doctoring. Yes, the knowledge base for medicine is always expanding, but as I tell students, regardless of what field of medicine you choose, the technical aspects eventually become routine. Even emergency and family physicians, who encounter the largest variety of symptoms and diagnoses, get acclimated to bread-and-butter encounters: back pain, chest pain, respiratory


Dr. Lin is professor of family medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. He also serves as deputy editor of American Family Physician. This article first appeared on his blog, Common Sense Family Doctor.

Author disclosure: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.

Copyright © 2018 Kenny Lin, MD, MPH.


1. Gawande A. Curiosity and what equality really means. The New Yorker. June 2, 2018. Accessed Sept. 26, 2018.

2. Lin KW. Unequal treatment: teaching about racism during medical education. Medscape Family Medicine. Published June 20, 2016. Accessed Sept. 26, 2018.

3. Fitzgerald FT. Curiosity. Ann Intern Med. 1999;130(1):70–72. Accessed Sept. 26, 2018.


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