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Choosing to become a doctor isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. After all, it takes a lot of dedication and preparation to even be accepted into medical school, and once you’re there, you’ll be subjected to an intense learning schedule that will take up the majority of your peak years.
To put it mildly, it’s not a career path for the light-hearted – or light-headed.
If you have the correct adeptness, though, it is also a highly rewarding job, both in terms of satisfaction and financial recompense. To give you an indication of the kind of skills needed to be a doctor, we’ve compiled a brief list.
Medicine is just as much about your soft skills as your education, after all, so don’t overlook the importance of these essential qualities.
This is what you’ll need to make it as a physician.
1. Communication skills
Communication is important in every career, but none more so than in medicine.
Interacting with patients and colleagues will form a huge part of your day-to-day programme, and if you have poor communicative skills, then not only will it make your job harder, but it can also put people’s lives at risk.
For example, communication is a key part of initial diagnosis. Tests and scans can confirm or rule out certain theories, but in order to understand what is going on with a patient, you need to be able to ask the right questions, read between the lines with their answers and convey to them in simple terms what your thoughts are. Likewise, you need to be able to understand what other professionals (such as nurses, paramedics or pharmacists) are telling you and give them clear directions in return.
Remember: you can be the brightest academic or the most skilled physician in the business, but if you can’t effectively talk and listen to others, then you – and your patients – are going to struggle.
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2. Emotional intelligence
In a similar vein, the ability to display tact and sensitivity – especially with patients – is another key skill.
Unfortunately, it is a harsh reality of the job that, sometimes, you are going to have to deliver bad news, either directly to patients or their close relatives. Often, it will be news that the recipient does not want to hear, and you need to have the emotional maturity to remain professional and level-headed and explain to people what the best course of action is.
You may, for instance, be informing a total stranger that their wife or husband has been in a life-changing accident or revealing to a patient that they have a terminal illness. These are hugely difficult conversations that require empathy, professionalism and understanding.
3. Problem-solving skills
It’s said that much of medical diagnosis is essentially detective work, gathering clues and evidence and then working towards a cause and solution; therefore, it helps if you are a natural problem solver.
Of course, your training will provide you with the technical knowledge you need to understand such cases, but the ability to decompose problems and construct an internal algorithm that implements that knowledge is a skill that needs to be cultivated and developed.
You’ll need to be able to think outside the box, too. Not every patient presentation is clear-cut, and the test results might not align with your assumptions; in such instances, don’t be afraid to get in touch with your inner Gregory House and approach the problem from a different perspective.
Want to hone your problem-solving skills? Enrol in the Creative Problem Solving course by the University of Minnesota.
4. Attention to detail
When dealing with drug doses, patient histories, allergies, physiological differences, cultural customs and every other single aspect of a busy hospital ward, it’s naturally imperative that you don’t neglect the little things. In other words, attention to detail is an essential skill for any medical professional.
It’s not just about getting dosages right or being aware of drug contraindications, either; it’s about noticing red flags and leaving no stone unturned in your initial patient interactions. For instance, if a certain patient keeps presenting every few months with new injuries, it might be clumsiness – or it could be something more sinister. The point is that good doctors notice everything – even at the end of a long and busy day – and they don’t allow anything to get past them.
5. Decision-making skills
When it comes to patient care, all final clinical decisions are the remit of doctors; therefore, you’re going to need to be comfortable taking responsibility and making tough calls. This means managing and overseeing patient treatment plans, as well as having to explain and justify them to relatives – this can be difficult if they are not cooperative to your ideas.
It also means being able to make snap decisions. If you work in the emergency department, for instance, you may have a patient who is fine one moment and arresting the next. Being able to remain cool, calm and professional under intense pressure – and make sound clinical calls – is the hallmark of a good doctor.
Dealing with the public isn’t easy at the best of times, but when they are stressed, sick, emotional or all three, things can turn chaotic very easily. It’s absolutely vital that you are able to remain professional at all times and not put yourself in a position where your ability to treat is compromised.
Of course, there are many forms of professionalism; day to day, these are likely to include:
- not rising to verbal or even physical abuse and demonstrating strong conflict resolution skills;
- treating all patients courteously and respectfully, regardless of their background;
- making patients with potentially embarrassing symptoms comfortable;
- ensuring that high standards of care and correct clinical procedures are maintained and followed at all times, by both yourself and others; and
- showing tact and emotional maturity in interactions with patients.
7. Teamwork skills
One of the key requirements for any medical professional is the ability to collaborate and work as part of a wider team. This might be in an acute setting, such as in a trauma team or an out of hospital setting, or it could be within the wider treatment system where you are giving and receiving input from other professionals such as psychiatrists or oncologists.
Either way, the ability to interact and build relationships with peers and colleagues is important, not just for patient care but also to ensure a harmonious working environment day in and day out. It’s true that no doctor can achieve anything without good nurses and vice versa, so it’s vital to be a team player at all times.
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8. Leadership skills
As previously touched upon, at some point you are going to be the go-to person when it comes to clinical calls. This might be in the middle of a volatile and highly-charged acute emergency or it might be in regards to a particularly complex ongoing case. Either way, people will be looking to you for guidance and answers, so you need to step up to the plate.
Later on in your career, you will likely also be responsible for training and mentoring junior doctors and medical students, so your leadership skills need to be up to scratch. This doesn’t just mean imparting nuggets of wisdom on impressionable minds, either; it means leading by example and being there for others when things don’t go well.
Admittedly, resilience is not so much a ‘skill’ as a ‘quality’, but it’s still possible to train yourself to be more robust; you will need to, as well, as becoming a doctor means exposing yourself to things that will undeniably have an impact on your worldview and your sensitivities.
From a very early part of your career, you will see things that will upset you and change you, and while you will receive all the support you need to process and deal with this, it’s a reality that some people react better than others. If you’re easily upset or shaken by things, then this isn’t necessarily a bad trait – it shows that you are compassionate, after all – but you will need to learn to manage this and ensure that it never affects your professionalism, judgement or your ability to treat.
Working on your resilience? Join University of Pensylvania's Positive Psychology: Resilience Skills course on Coursera.
10. Capacity for learning
Human bodies are immensely complex to the point where it’s near impossible for one person to know everything about them; doctors, however, have to get pretty damn close.
Of course, you don’t need to be a walking encyclopaedia; you can always consult specialists and, well, actual medical encyclopaedias. But throughout medical school and, indeed, the rest of your career, you are going to be taking on and absorbing absolutely massive amounts of technical information. If you’re not particularly ‘book smart’, then there’s a high chance that, at some point, it’s going to catch up with you and you’re going to fall by the wayside.
You’ll never truly leave the classroom, either. Medical discoveries and technologies move quickly, so even as a highly-qualified professional, you will need to be up to date and aware of the latest treatment developments and trends.
Of the many difficult steps involved in becoming a doctor, developing these skills can sometimes be overlooked in favour of passing exams and mastering techniques. But without them, your career in medicine will be doomed to failure before it has even begun.
If you’re seriously considering going into the profession, then look at how you can work on these skills, particularly if you think you’re weak in certain areas; medical school boards will assess them, and the challenges and situations you encounter in your career will definitely test them. Not only will you be preparing yourself for your chosen role, but you will also be indirectly ensuring that the patients you will one day treat will benefit from the skillset that you possess.
Start a conversation! What skills have we missed? Let us know in the comments below!
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 6 February 2019.