4 Ways To Tell If Your Doctor Is A True Healer

Written by Dr. Ronald Epstein
4 Ways To Tell If Your Doctor Is A True Healer

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I'm frequently asked by friends and colleagues to recommend a physician, and it's not always straightforward. Oftentimes, doctors feel uncomfortable recommending a colleague because some of the most important qualities of healers are hard to describe and define.

Being a great doctor is more than having encyclopedic knowledge. It's more than how your doctor performed on the board exam—a mind-numbing multiple-choice exercise that is all about facts and doesn't adequately address the ambiguities, complexities, and uncertainties of medical practice. Being a great doctor is more than being skilled. If your doctor is a neurosurgeon, it's important for him to have an accurate and steady hand, but he also needs to discern when an operation is in your best interest and how to handle unexpected complications technically as well as emotionally.

What should you be looking for in your next doctor?

Doctors who manage the complexities of health care are mindful; they pay attention. And with an acute awareness—to their own inner lives and those of their patients—they can practice with clarity, effectiveness, and compassion. Mindfulness is part of the art of medicine, and like other arts, it can be taught, modeled, and assessed. Four keys to practicing mindfully (in medicine and in any human endeavor) are attentive observation, critical curiosity, beginner's mind, and presence. You might want to think about how your own doctor measures up.

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1. Attentive observation

This means that as a patient, you feel that your doctor is paying attention to you. She isn't distracted. She picks up on when you're worried, and when you're in pain. Beneath the surface she's observing her own inner landscape—her emotions, intuitions, and hunches—and uses her knowledge to enhance her understanding of what you think, feel, and need as her patient.

2. Critical curiosity

Your doctor should be interested in you, what troubles you, and what might help. She asks about you and your symptoms until she understands, and until you know that she understands. She avoids making assumptions. She's confident but isn't too sure of herself; she's open and flexible. She's willing to entertain new ideas and avoids premature closure. She maintains a soft vigilance for the unexpected surprises that are part of caring for the sick and finds that these surprises enrich her own enjoyment of practicing medicine.

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3. A beginner's mind

This means that your doctor isn't merely an expert—someone who has the answers; he's a master—and he knows the right questions to ask. He can see a familiar situation with new eyes, a beginner's mind, and he never stops learning. This is especially important in medicine because it's a deeply human enterprise, with all of its unpredictability. You want a doctor who's always learning and growing as a human being. If your doctor feels that he knows it all, there's no room to learn.

4. Presence

You know what it feels like when someone's "really there" for you, yet it's hard to put it into words. A present doctor is one that seems unflappable; he is tolerant and won't turn away regardless of the type of difficulty you bring. He accompanies you on your journey, even if it's a journey you'd rather not have to take. When you're with him his focus is on you as a human being—not just your medical problem. It should feel like a relationship between two human beings. Presence is like hospitality; the door is always open.

Ultimately, these four qualities add up to a doctor that knows you—and him- or herself—well enough not only to make smart decisions about your care but to make wise ones. After all, most of medical care is routine, and any good doctor will get most of it right most of the time. But it's when things get complex and the roadmap isn't as clear that you want a doctor who is mindful and has practical wisdom in addition to deep knowledge and well-honed skills.

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