The Arrogance of Doctors

The public seems to view doctors has being arrogant and misbehaving. According to one doctor, it's behavior encouraged by the medical culture.

The way people view physicians is a little confusing these days. On the one hand, patients believe that doctors are highly honest and ethical. Yet, at the same time there is a belief that doctors are arrogant and misbehave.

In his recent column for Huffington Post, Richard C. Senelick, MD, discussed why he thinks physicians are perceived as being arrogant. He concluded that although he doesn’t think physicians are any more arrogant than, say, lawyers or professors, the bad behaviors people witness and dislike are a product of medical training.

“Medical culture can encourage assertive behavior, arrogance and a sense of entitlement,” he wrote. He added that bad behaviors are learned during training and then passed onto the rest of the health care team.

The truth is that perhaps doctors have a little right to be arrogant and assured in being right. After all, patients trust their doctors to take care of them and to have experience and competence so that they can recommend treatment and advice.

Despite being a doctor himself, when Senelick’s wife was sick he wanted to feel like he could trust his wife’s doctor to make the best decisions.

“We all purportedly desire to actively participate in our care, but I don't think this means that we want a physician who will serve us a cafeteria line of options and tell us to take our pick,” Senelick wrote. “Of course I want to hear the options, but then I want my physician to recommend the course of action that he or she thinks will prove most effective.”

Perhaps this confidence a doctor has in his or her own ability to make decisions can be perceived as arrogance. But in his essay on arrogance, Franz Ingelfinger, MD, noted a difference between what he called being “beneficially arrogant” and being “destructively arrogant.”

Senelick doesn’t deny that arrogant behavior is there or that there is room for improvement. One problem, he wrote, is that the relationship between a doctor and a patient has been depersonalized. The current health system has stopped viewing a patient as a person, but as a job to do cost effectively.

According to Senelick the following behaviors can safely be considered arrogance and not confidence:

  • A failure to listen to a patient’s and family’s problems
  • A lack of respect and good manners towards staff and patients
  • Abusive or critical comments
  • Boastfulness and exaggeration of one’s abilitiesAn unwillingness to be questioned
  • Blaming others for mistakes or omissions made by the physician

Have you witnessed these behaviors in colleagues? In yourself? And how would you go about changing this type of behavior?