Essential qualities of a good physician

Essential qualities of a good physician

Read our guide to discover what traits a good physician should have.

There are some essential qualities that one must possess to become a great doctor. Read our guide to discover the traits that mark out a good physician from the other graduates.

What skills do medical schools look for?

Medical schools are looking for more than just excellent academic credentials, although of course these are expected. They are looking for the types of people who demonstrate the attributes needed to work as an effective MD. Of course, there are plenty of lists to be found indicating what these might be — many on medical school websites — but it’s important to remember that being a doctor is fundamentally about people.

Are you socially intelligent? Empathic? A good listener? As a doctor, you’ll need to read people for clues all the time so you discern a bit about who they are. This is important for diagnosis, but also because good doctoring is about building relationships. You’ll be with people for some of their most life-defining moments. Do you have the right amount of compassion and human understanding?

Are you dedicated? Professional? Authoritative? As a doctor you will, at times, need to work harder than you thought possible. There will be late nights, no weekends, long shifts and demanding rotations. Do you think you can retain your professionalism through tiredness, hunger, distraction and personal tragedy? Can you command a room on no sleep?

These are the attributes that medical schools will want to see glimpses of. They don’t expect the finished article on the first day of the first semester, but they will want a hint that you have this capacity inside you.

What is the work ethic of a doctor?

Having a good work ethic as a doctor is essential. Especially in the first few years at med school, as a resident and as a newly-qualified doctor — the demands on your time are going to be huge. That’s not to say that having a work life balance is going to be impossible. But you will need to be organised about how you spend your time and systematic in how you divide it between work, wellbeing and play.

You will already know that many doctors tend to work shift patterns, so you will need to be prepared to spend your nights and weekends at work. The time is made up on your ‘off’ days, but you won’t be able to guarantee having the same time off as your 9–5 friends.

You will definitely have to work holidays and weekends, even if you avoid night shifts for the majority of your career.

Some people can become confused by the difference between ‘work ethic’ and a doctor’s ‘code of ethics’. A work ethic simply means that you are hardworking, something all doctors need to be of course. However a ‘code of ethics’ is a separate thing altogether. This is a set of principles that you sign up to when you become a doctor. It is a formal code of practice and if you breach it, your medical license could be in jeopardy.

Working with a team as a doctor

As a doctor, you need to be highly aware that you are working as part of a team. That team might contain more experienced doctors or experts with greater seniority, but equally, it is likely to feature other types of medical staff. For example nurses, assistants or technicians. You need to be able to create professional working relationships with people at all levels of the healthcare system so that patients receive the best care it is possible to provide. That’s the overall goal and you have to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

Good relationship with the patient

People forget that the patient is part of the team as well. They are more invested in working towards good health than anyone — and a well-motivated patient is often the secret behind some of the most effective treatments. As a doctor, you need to make the patient feel included in their care plan (where possible of course) and empowered to take positive action for their own health

Good social and communication skills

Following on from the previous point, doctors need to be able to communicate with many different types of staff from across a hospital’s service. Doctors with good social skills have the power to make people feel like they are part of the same team. Communicating clearly and effectively ensures everybody knows what they need to do, when and why it’s important.


You will have trained for a long time to become an MD — and it is alright to feel proud and confident in your abilities. However, this shouldn’t come across as arrogance. Doctors who exhibit arrogance are unapproachable and difficult to work with 

The ability to manage ‘up’ as well as ‘down’

Sometimes, more senior figures might depend on you to take care of arrangements and logistics. Busy senior MDs have a lot of draws on their attention and you might find you need to work assertively to make sure you get what you need for a patient

Clarity of purpose

It’s important not to lose sight of what the main goal is for each patient — will it be to relieve someone’s pain, to improve their mobility, or to find a better drug protocol? As part of a team, it is essential that you retain clarity of purpose, as the patient might not be able to assert themselves.

What skills are needed to be a good doctor?

Skills are slightly different from attributes or characteristics because they are things you can learn to be good at.

Good analytical skills

Doctoring is often about processing lots of information and extracting the salient facts so you can diagnose someone, or figure out the best course of treatment. Doctors need to have vast amounts of subject knowledge, but they also need to be able to process it fast. 

Good communication skills

This is especially important because you will constantly be working alongside others in a team. You’ll also have your own relationship with the patient to maintain. You will need to be a very versatile communicator, because you may need to communicate what you need to a group of nurses in one moment, and break bad news to a family in the next.

Organizational skills

Balancing a heavy patient load in the context of a busy health institution has its own organizational demands. But it’s really important that you understand that good organisation is a respectful act towards your colleagues. It’s difficult to work with someone who doesn’t take responsibility, so make sure you do.

Would you make a good doctor?

This is something that you can’t figure out by yourself, alone in a room. You have to actually go out into the world and try it on for size. You can’t apply to medical school without some volunteering, so think to yourself, would you thrive in that environment? Do you enjoy it? Do other people enjoy working with you? Becoming an MD is an aspiration that some people have for the wrong reasons. While doctors should enjoy status and a good salary for all their dedication and hard work, those things shouldn’t be the main motivator for your application.

Equally, some people who would be technically good MDs simply don’t enjoy the work. So, take your time to reflect, and most importantly think: would I be happy doing this?

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