The Difference Between Good Doctors and GREAT Doctors

“Do you like your family practitioner?” my sister asked a few weeks ago. “Would you recommend him?”

“Absolutely! I adore my doctor-he’s great!” I answered immediately, and then I started a long, emphatic testimonial, as if I were my doctor’s publicity manager. During my monologue, I used words like “smart,” “logical,” “listens,” and “respectful.” Afterwards, I realized I had not uttered the words “qualified” or “well-trained”-not even once.

The conversation with my sister made me ponder the factors and characteristics that set the great doctors apart from the good ones. Websites rating and ranking doctors crowd the Internet. On these lists, medical professionals earn the title of “Top Docs” based on surveys filled out by their medical peers. And so I posed questions to a panel of six doctors, nurses, and health care professionals. I asked: What do you look for when considering a doctor to oversee the care of your own family? In your opinion, what qualities do the very best doctors possess?

GOOD TO GREAT: THEY HAVE STRONG EDUCATION AND TRAINING

By choosing a doctor who is Board Certified by one of the twenty-four American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) Member Boards, you can feel confident he or she meets nationally recognized standards for education, knowledge, experience and skills to provide high quality care in a specific medical specialty. Board Certification goes above and beyond basic medical licensure. Determining if a particular doctor is Board Certified is fast, free, and easy. Simply visit the ABMS website, register, and plug in the doctor’s name and city.

Mike Lipscomb, MD, an Emergency Room doctor at North Fulton Hospital in Roswell, Georgia and a physician with Apollo MD believes that doctors at the top of their fields have solid educational and training foundations to draw upon as they practice medicine. But Lipscomb also offers a warning.

“I wouldn’t put much weight on the big-name schools,” he says.

He explains that tuition expenses at these elite schools can reach well over $50,000 per year making them unrealistic options for many medical students.

“Many state schools are less than a third of this,” he continues. “High price doesn’t correlate to a better education. Some of the best physicians I know went to large state universities for school, and they made the choice to come out with as little debt as possible.”

“And I wouldn’t put much stock in research,” says Lipscomb. “Being good in the lab doesn’t necessarily correlate to being clinically competent.”

GOOD TO GREAT: THEIR KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE FEED THEIR REASONING

“When seeking a physician for myself or family, I regard credentials as a bare minimum and the physician’s experience as a second layer, depending on the nature of care required,” remarks Adedapo Odetoyinbo, MD, SFHM, Chief Medical Officer and Director of Hospital Medicine at Emory Johns Creek Hospital in Georgia. “Experience plays a key role when the need is more technical in nature or when decisions need to be made quickly in an emergency situation. More important to me than research itself, is the physician’s ability to integrate research results and evidence-based medicine into their everyday practice.”

Odetoyinbo refers to the doctor’s practical ability to decipher a puzzle-to select pieces of knowledge from his or her education and experiences and correctly apply them to the situation at hand. In the physician’s pursuit to protect and restore a patient’s well-being, knowledge enhances reasoning and rational decision-making, and experts agree that some doctors are simply better than others at applying what they know.

GOOD TO GREAT: THEY ARE EXCELLENT COMMUNICATORS

Many of the experts polled remarked that the best of the best have a toolbox full of excellent soft skills-those personal attributes and qualities that enhance an individual’s one-on-one interactions and performance.

“What separates the good doctors from those we consider top docs is their ability to listen to patients-to really hear them and respond to what they are saying,” says Cindy Hardy, a Physician Relations Manager at North Fulton Hospital who worked as a nurse for years.

She notes that master physicians allow patients to set the tempo for the first few minutes of an interaction while listening and gathering valuable information. Only then, do they respond.

A study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in 2005 (Travaline, Ruchinskas, and D’Alonzo) found that in many cases, effective patient-physician communication can improve a patient’s health as quantifiably as many drugs. Patients who understand their doctors are more likely to acknowledge health problems, understand their treatment options, modify their behavior accordingly, and follow their medication schedules.

“And the great ones communicate with the patient and the family,” notes Hardy. “The great ones listen to input and speak at a level ensuring everyone in the room understands what’s going on, which is particularly important when a physician, patient, and patient’s family are discussing a plan of care.”

Dr. Robert Campbell, Chief of Cardiac Services at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Sibley Heart Center adds that great doctors usually surround themselves with staff members who are committed to listening, as well.

“Good communication helps support our team culture,” Campbell says. “Given high volume, high patient acuity, and high patient throughput-both inpatient and outpatient-it’s clear that no one single provider can function alone. Therefore, it’s important that we work as a cohesive team and that requires excellent communication to coordinate our efforts.”

GOOD TO GREAT: THEY ARE COMPASSIONATE

Top docs not only maintain technical competence, but also nourish and exercise humanistic qualities-kindness, warmth, and compassion-when a patient needs it most.

“Again, the credentials are a given,” says Debbie Keel, Chief Executive Officer of North Fulton Hospital. “But when a patient isn’t feeling well, or they are afraid, or they are facing long, expensive care and are concerned about the costs, they need compassion, and the very best doctors have a compassionate presence about them.”

Keel, a mother and grandmother herself, encourages her staff to see patients in a different light.

“I say, ‘That’s your mother in that bed,'” she adds. “Top doctors treat their patients with the same compassion that they would have with their own family members.”

But showing compassion is harder today given that doctors are stretched thin and must care for more patients than ever during the course of the day.

“We can’t create more hours in the day,” she says. “It is hard to show their caring sensitive sides when they only have a few minutes with a patient, but the most-respected doctors do it.”

GOOD TO GREAT: THEY DEMONSTRATE THE HIGHEST ETHICAL STANDARDS

All physicians pledge to promote and encourage the highest level of medical ethics, a system of moral principles that apply values and judgements to the practice of medicine. But most healthcare experts say that ethics go far beyond a doctor’s moral obligations. Ethics encompass how they perform when no one is looking and how they treat others.

“When I interview physicians who are joining us, I tell them they will not survive long if they are lazy or unethical,” says Steve Waronker, MD, Department Chair of Anesthesiology at Emory Johns Creek Hospital. “I also tell them that if they cannot live by the Golden Rule and treat the environmental services employee as well as they treat the CEO, they need not apply.”

Indeed, many doctors-especially the really great ones-view the Hippocratic Oath as a sacred covenant. By reciting it, physicians swear to practice medicine honestly, avoid acts of impropriety or corruption, keep conversations confidential, among many other codes of moral conduct. It’s their guide to ethical behavior.

Among other attributes that transform good doctors into truly great ones are intuitive perception-a sixth sense, accessibility, common sense, bedside manner, and a doctor’s willingness to be a team player. But perhaps it’s a doctor’s ability to be multifaceted and multidimensional that makes some shine more brightly than others.

“They possess compassion, common sense, command of a large body of knowledge, and the humility to ask for help when things get complex and confusing,” Waronker says. “Ultimately, the best physicians have it all.”

Amber Lanier Nagle has published hundreds of articles in national and regional magazines.

She is the brainchild behind Project Keepsake (http://www.ProjectKeepsake.com), a published collection of nonfiction stories about the origins and histories of keepsakes-a pocket knife, a cake pan, a quilt, a milking stool, etc. She says, “Everyone has a keepsake, and every keepsake has a story to tell.”

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