What Makes a "Best Doctor?"

Say you have two physicians with similar education, training and experience. If one is much more successful than the other, the obvious question is "Why?"

“Listen to the patient, they’re telling you the diagnosis.”

— William Osler, MD

Whenever one of those “Best Doctors” lists was published I’d ask my physician-dad if he was on it, to which he quickly responded: “No, but I should be.” While I certainly respected his confidence, I still wondered what it takes to be the best in medicine.

Say you have two physicians with similar education, training and experience. If one is much more successful than the other, the obvious question is “Why?” Decades ago, a Carnegie Foundation study of successful people showed that technical skills accounted for just 15% for a person’s success. What counted more, according to the study, was a person’s skill in “human engineering.”

In other words, to be successful, it’s more essential to have a talent for communicating with others and getting along with them. Several years later, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study that confirmed the Carnegie finding, the top traits that employers look for are attitude and communication skills, which are more important to them than training and education.

This premise is borne out by dad’s experience during 50 years of medical practice. He told me that the best doctors where almost always those who cared more about the people then the science. Although I was seldom on the receiving end of his empathy, countless numbers of his patients told me how dad “cured” them just by listening when they needed to be heard, and talking when they needed to be told.

I always remember the story of patients who opened up to my father with: “Doc, I feel lousy” and him replying: “Well, so do I, now tell me what’s wrong.” Now there’s empathy is spades.