20 Essential Skills Needed to Be a Doctor

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Reviewed by Chris Leitch

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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’s 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.

This is what you’ll need to make it as a physician.

Soft skills

To become a good doctor, you need to develop a range of soft skills, ranging from effective communication to problem solving, and beyond. We’ll talk about 10 of these skills below and see how each relates back to the medical profession:

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 program. And if you have poor communicative skills, 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’s 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 nursesparamedics 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.

2. Emotional intelligence

In a similar vein, the ability to display tact and sensitivity — especially with patients — is another key skill.

Unfortunately, it’s a harsh reality of the job that, sometimes, you’re going to have to deliver bad news, either directly to patients or their close relatives. Often, it will be news that the recipient doesn’t 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 example, 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

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’re 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.

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 example, 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’re not cooperative to your ideas.

It also means being able to make snap decisions. If you work in the emergency department, for example, 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.

6. Professionalism

Dealing with the public isn’t easy at the best of times, but when they’re stressed, sick, emotional or all three, things can turn chaotic very easily. It’s absolutely vital that you’re 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 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
  • 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’re 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.

8. Leadership skills

As previously touched upon, at some point you’re 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’ll 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.

9. Resilience

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’ll 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’re compassionate, after all — but you’ll need to learn to manage this and ensure that it never affects your professionalism, judgement or your ability to treat.

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 encyclopedia; you can always consult specialists and, well, actual medical encyclopedias. But throughout medical school and, indeed, the rest of your career, you’re 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’ll need to be up to date and aware of the latest treatment developments and trends.

Technical skills

Besides well-developed soft skills, a doctor’s profession requires various technical skills. Unlike soft skills, which can be transferred between jobs and industries, these skills are specific to the medical industry. Let’s talk about 10 technical skills needed to become a doctor:

1. Human anatomy knowledge

Starting with the most obvious one, doctors need to have an excellent understanding of human anatomy. Though the average person might not know exactly where their gallbladder is or what the iliotibial band does, they’ll want their doctor to know so they can diagnose and treat them.

But human anatomy goes beyond what each organ does and where it lies. It involves the study of the various organ systems in the body, of which there are 11 — such as the skeletal and cardiovascular systems — and the understanding of how these systems work together and impact one another.

2. Symptomatology

The human body is complicated. Sometimes, pain in a particular spot on the body can signal that there’s something wrong with whatever organ or muscle lies in that area. However, things aren’t always that straightforward: discomfort in one part of the body can mean an issue somewhere else. On top of that, different conditions and illnesses can have a range of symptoms, not all of which might be present in a patient.

A doctor, therefore, needs to not only be able to recognize and interpret isolated or combined symptoms, they must also take into consideration the patient’s history to rule things out or decide what to investigate further.

3. Measuring vital signs

Vital signs give physicians an indication of a patient’s overall health, helping them detect and monitor problems.

As a physician, you’ll be taught how to measure vital signs manually or using equipment. These fall into four main categories:

  • Body temperature, which is most commonly measured orally, rectally or under the armpit, and informs the doctor of fever or hypothermia.
  • Respiration rate, which is the number of breaths taken per minute and can point to illnesses and other conditions.
  • Pulse rate, which can easily be taken at the wrist and can help diagnose heart conditions, like tachycardia, and other diseases.
  • Blood pressure, measured using sphygmomanometers, which can warn of grave health risks such as heart attack and stroke.

4. Wound care

As a doctor, you need to know how to clean and disinfect cuts and lesions, safely wrap up wounds with bandages, and decide on the right aftercare instructions. In the case of a sprain or fracture, you must also be able to apply splints and suggest the right resting period for your patient’s body to heal.

Of course, in some cases, you may be called to give instructions or make assessments over the phone, in case someone needs immediate relief until they can speak with you in person.

In any case, it’s important to know the ingredients of various topical creams and to check whether they’re suitable for your patient given their history.

5. Drawing blood

Also known as venipuncture, drawing blood is an essential skill taught to medical students in school and during their residency. However, physicians don’t tend to draw blood or start IVs often, as those procedures are more routinely carried out by nurses and phlebotomists.

Having said that, some cases do require physicians to step in. For example, when veins in the arms can’t be accessed due to a patient being severely dehydrated, obese or having a history of drug abuse, physicians can make the call and utilize veins in the neck, chest or groin.

6. Giving injections

There are two ways to give an injection: subcutaneously, which means into the fatty tissue beneath the skin, or intramuscularly, which means into the muscle.

For the average person, all injections seem to be done in more or less the same way. As a healthcare professional, however, you’ll know to eliminate air bubbles from the syringe, check the amount of medicine in it, and pay attention to the angle and speed at which the needle enters the patient’s skin.

7. CPR

According to the American CPR Care Association, all doctors must earn CPR certification and keep their knowledge and skills current. The same goes for nurses and other healthcare professionals. As a result, CPR certification remains valid for two years.

Although it makes sense for people to assume that cardiopulmonary resuscitation guidelines stay the same over time, updates to procedures can and do occur. This might have to do with optimizing methods — such as the rate of compressions — as we learn more about the human body, or adapting to events like the COVID-19 pandemic, which came with a set of guidelines of its own.

So, if a career in medicine is calling your name, prepare for a good amount of ongoing learning.

8. Medical reporting

A doctor’s daily life includes assessing patients’ conditions and prescribing the appropriate medications or treatments. Besides keeping records regarding patients’ health for private use, however, physicians are sometimes tasked with filling in medical reports for others. This can happen for various reasons: a patient’s employer or insurance company might require one, for example, or solicitors or police officers may request reports as part of a case.

To write up medical reports as a physician, you need to refer to patients’ previous medical records and make comments that fall under your area of expertise only. This ensures that the end result is clear, detailed and backed by facts rather than informed by memory or opinions.

9. Reading medical imaging

When it comes to treating and preventing conditions and safeguarding people’s health, modern medicine relies on imaging a lot. This refers to scans like X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasound and CT scans.

Though anyone can look at an image of a twisted finger and tell that it’s broken, as a doctor, you’ll need to know how to interpret different types of images and specialized reports. This helps in explaining things to patients and arriving at informed conclusions about their condition, combining evidence from one or more reports.

10. Healthcare software

Healthcare institutions and private medical practices alike make use of different software, like databases and spreadsheets, in order to provide the best possible service to patients. While some (like Excel) aren’t specialized, doctors often have to familiarize themselves with programs made specifically for the needs of their profession.

These include software for creating and maintaining electronic health records, practice management programs, medical billing software, and programs with telemedicine functionality, to name a few. Often, healthcare software combines a lot of these features into one.

Final thoughts

Of the many difficult steps involved in becoming a doctor, developing these skills can sometimes be overlooked in favor 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’ll also be indirectly ensuring that the patients you’ll one day treat will benefit from the professional skill set that you possess.

Are there any other important skills? Let us know in the comments section below!


Originally published on February 6, 2019. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.