Embracing humility

The author discusses why he believes humility is one of the key attributes of an excellent physician.


William Osler said, “Acquire the art of detachment, the virtue of method, and the quality of thoroughness, but above all the grace of humility.”

Like Osler, I believe that humility must be one of the key attributes of an excellent physician.

Courtesy of Robert Goldszer
Courtesy of Robert Goldszer.

How do we learn, teach and maintain humility? For me, being a patient has been a very important learning opportunity. I do not recommend that every physician have a medical problem, but I do recommend that when that time comes in our lives, we use the experience to improve ourselves.

I have had two one-night hospitalizations. Thankfully, both overnight stays have been for manageable problems. I am grateful for the many tremendous advances in technology and medical science that gave the people involved in my care easier and better solutions. Imaging, laparoscopy, minimally invasive treatments for arterial blockage and medications for prevention are just a few of those that I have personally experienced and that have allowed me very short hospital stays.

As a physician, learner and teacher, I have learned something whenever I have been on the other side of the bed. In particular, I have renewed my respect for what we do and do not know and for what the life of an inpatient is like. This has directly contributed to my humility. As a patient, I have observed the positive and negative aspects of patient and clinician interactions.

As a physician-patient, when I observe the members of our care teams doing their jobs well, I am very appreciative. During one of my hospital stays, the registration woman behind the desk in our emergency department immediately moved me to triage when she saw the problem I wrote on the brief intake form. The initial nurse, who took a brief focused history, got the physician to provide rapid action on my specific need and helped ease my acute concern. When she returned and sat down to talk with my wife and me, she went into a more detailed complete history, and then talked with us about what was going to happen, so we understood more.

Physicians who sat down when they talked with us gave a feeling of being focused and having time for us. Including my wife in discussions and being sure she understood were essential parts of communication. A smile from each clinician immediately alleviated some of my anxiety.

I felt reassured that they were going to try their best and that I, the patient, was important to them. Each of these team members demonstrated respect and modesty.

Because I was a physician-patient, it was important that the nurses and physicians respect my experience and knowledge but also that they did not assume too much knowledge. I liked when my clinicians reviewed how they wanted me to take my medications and went over possible medication side effects and interactions. I didn't want them to assume that just because I was a physician I must know these things.

I have seen firsthand that taking care of a patient is very complex and requires a team. Each member of the team must do his or her own special part for the patient to have a successful outcome and an excellent experience at the lowest possible cost. Humility is essential for excellent team function.

Our systems are still not perfect, and I know well we are working on improvements. If physicians allow themselves to truly learn, I believe our health care system will be significantly improved. When I say “truly learn,” I mean to observe, listen and then incorporate into our daily lives the positive aspects of what has touched us personally as a patient.

Saying “please” and “thank you” and introducing ourselves are signs of respect. These are things our parents taught us, and we need to use them every time we interact with a patient and family. Adding humility to the training of the next generation of physicians will go a long way toward improving the experience of our patients, families, colleagues and ourselves.