Are Some of the Best Doctors Cerebral Introverts?

This post is very personal, but it has a larger point too.

My father was a gastroenterologist and medical school professor in New York City. Every day he would take care of his patients, come home, and have dinner with the family, and then, after the rest of us had gone to bed, he would pore over medical journals late into the night.

As a young girl, I used to worry about him. I thought that surely he couldn’t be happy this way, night after night, alone with his work. It was only when I grew up and turned into someone who devours psychology journals that I understood how happy my father actually was. And, of course, all that studying made him one hell of a doctor.

I thought about this when I came across an article alleging that most doctors are too busy and overworked to read medical journals. They rely on what they learned in medical school and fail to stay current with developments in their fields. Here’s William Shankle, M.D. and professor at U.C. Irvine:

“Most doctors are practicing 10 to 20 years behind the available medical literature and continue to practice what they learned in medical school… There is a breakdown in the transfer of information from the research to the overwhelming majority of practicing physicians. Doctors do not seek to implement new treatments that are supported in the literature or change treatments that are not.”

Doctors do have “continuing medical education” requirements, which they often meet by attending conferences at beach or ski resorts.

My mother, who accompanied my father to these conferences, used to tease him about being the only participant to sit through every session, in the front row—no less. He taped them all, and then in his hour-long commute to work, he would listen to the tapes, over and over again, until he’d absorbed the information. Even now, when he no longer practices, he still attends gastroenterology conferences because he’s excited to find out “what will happen next” in his field.

This post is partly a paean to my father, but it has broader implications. Lately, medical schools have started screening applicants for people skills. This comes from an admirable impulse—we’ve all felt the sting of doctors who don’t listen or address us or their teams brusquely—but I wonder how effective these tests are. My father wouldn’t have shone in that kind of assessment—he doesn’t enjoy talking for its own sake—but his patients loved him because they knew how much he cared. Maybe instead of testing for social skills—which can favor a glib charm even if that’s not the medical schools’ intention—we should be screening for kindness, curiosity, and a thirst for quiet study.

*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain’s former blog, The Power of Introverts.

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