13 Qualities Of A Good Doctor (& How To Demonstrate Them)

Updated on: December 12, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Being a good doctor takes the perfect mix of personal qualities, characteristics and attitudes, that all go into providing excellent care to patients.

Every doctor is an individual, so will approach medicine from a slightly different angle, but there are some qualities and attributes that crop up time and time again when investigating what makes great doctors good.

The top 13 qualities of a good doctor are:

  1. Problem-solving
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Effective communicator
  4. Personal organisation
  5. Honesty
  6. Teamwork
  7. The ability to reflect
  8. Empathy
  9. Resilience
  10. Respect
  11. Ability to take responsibility
  12. Academic ability
  13. Dealing with uncertainty

Having worked as a doctor for a few years now, I’ve come across my fair share of excellent doctors, as well as a very small handful who lacked a couple of the key qualities above.

In this article, I’m going to explore each of the above qualities of a good doctor, look at how they relate to everyday clinical practice, and explore how you could demonstrate them if you were applying to medical school.

Problem-Solving

Every new patient you see in clinical practice is essentially a new problem to be solved.

You’re given bits of information from lots of different sources: what the patient is telling you, what you can feel when examining the patient, the results of any blood tests or scans you’ve performed…

It’s then your job as a doctor to put all these snippets together to solve the problem of the patient’s diagnosis.

Now, don’t get me wrong, sometime it’s a very easy problem to solve.

If a patient is presenting with a sore throat, cough and runny nose, they probably have a cold.

But, there are other times when you just pick up one sign that’s slightly off, such as a blood test that comes back just slightly above the normal range, that then leads you down a rabbit hole of diagnosing an otherwise symptomless disease.

Good doctors are almost always excellent problem solvers- whether or not they actually realise it themselves!

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Describe how you overcame a challenge you faced at your work e.g. how you dealt with a difficult customer

Conscientiousness

In reality, most of modern medicine isn’t wild left-field diagnoses in the style of Dr House.

The majority of your day-to-day work as a doctor hinges on following protocols with attention to detail.

This lets you pick up on anything the patient says that stands out as abnormal or any test results that return outside of the expected ranges.

A very simple test that doctors can perform is a urine dip test.

This test can detect microscopic amounts of blood in a person’s urine.

There are many different reasons for blood being found in a patient’s urine, such as if she’s on her period, but there’s always an outside chance that it can signal something far more serious (such as kidney cancer).

A doctor who’s not conscientious could easily put a positive result down to one of these many harmless reasons and not bother repeating the test.

But, a conscientious doctor would always take a second look at something that’s not expected and so may find something nasty far, far sooner.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Take on a committee role with one of your extra-curricular activities e.g. the role of treasurer for your hockey club

Effective Communicator

You can be the most technically brilliant doctor in the world, but if you can’t communicate your plan to the patient, they’re not going to follow your treatment regime and they’re not going to get any better.

It was only once I began work as a doctor that I truly started to gain an appreciation for just how important communication skills are.

Now, it had been drilled into us at medical school, the importance of good communication and how to converse clearly with patients, but it’s only once you start regularly interacting with the general public that you get a sense of what level you need to pitch your explanations at.

(Learn how to tackle the MMI communication station here.)

As a doctor, you’ve spent five years at medical school learning almost a whole other language of medical jargon and terms.

And with that background of knowledge, it’s just far too easy to forget what you didn’t know before going through the whole process.

I remember before medical school, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where the liver sat in the body.

Despite this, without thinking as a doctor, I could very easily launch into an explanation to a patient about their liver and what was wrong with it, completely forgetting that they may not even know what a liver really is!

Communication skills are vital for a doctor to be able to make themselves understood and keep the patient onside when it comes to their treatment regime.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Undertake some work experience that could help improve your communication skills e.g. volunteering to teach children to read at school

Personal Organisation

I can’t say I’ve ever been an amazingly organised person.

However, I can say that working as a junior doctor has genuinely greatly improved my personal organisation skills.

As a busy doctor on the wards or in a GP practice, you’ve got to keep track of a hundred different tasks and duties, all of varying importance and urgency.

The stakes are high because losing track of an important job you need to do could directly negatively impact the quality of care for a patient.

If a patient needs an urgent x-ray, and you forget to book it because you got distracted, it’s not going to look good for you.

A chest radiograph demonstrating a left upper lobe pneumonia

Personal organisation is what will let you keep track of everything you need to do, prioritising the most urgent tasks to the top of your to-do list.

This will mean you get the important stuff done even if you’re being bombarded on all sides by nurses, patients or other doctors asking for things.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Present yourself in a well-kempt manner at your medical school interview and be sure to turn up in plenty of time!

Honesty

Out of this entire list, I’ve got to say I think honesty is one of the most important qualities for a doctor to have.

You just can’t have a dishonest doctor.

Doctors have easy access to controlled drugs, private patient information and can make life-changing decisions for the person sat in front of them.

A good doctor would never prescribe a medication just because they’d get a kickback from the pharmaceutical company who sold it, they’d never steal controlled drugs to sell them, and they’d never look at a patient’s private medical record unless they needed to.

Honesty is such an important quality for a doctor to have that even minor breaches are often cause for a fitness to practice meeting with the GMC.

For example, if a doctor were to do something as relatively minor as lie to get out of a parking ticket, and this fact came to light, they’d very likely face professional repercussions due to the fact that this act called their professional integrity into question.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

Teamwork

Once you start work in healthcare, you very quickly learn that it is very much a team sport.

As much as TV shows or movies make out, the doctor is not the be-all and end-all of patient care.

A huge team works both clinically and behind the scenes to care for patients- both in and out of hospitals.

You’ve got doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, healthcare assistants, ward clerks, cleaners, phlebotomists and dieticians to name just a few of the professions that might be involved in delivering care to a patient.

To be a good doctor, you need to be able to act as a specialised cog in this larger healthcare machine, working closely and effectively with your colleagues.

Even between doctors, teamwork is essential to delivering high-quality care.

Doctors work with other doctors to ask for specialist opinions, doctors perform operations together and doctors help each other out on busy days on the ward.

If you can’t work collaboratively, then you’re just not going to be a productive member of the team- and so hinder the delivery of care to your patients.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Take part in team sports or team activities (e.g. group fundraising for a charity) that showcase you as an excellent team player

The Ability To Reflect

You very likely reflect on things without even knowing it.

Reflection is essentially just thinking about something that happened, thinking about why it happened and how you responded, and thinking about what you could do better next time.

In medicine, this process is central to becoming a better doctor.

Reflection is one of the best ways to learn from your experiences and implement positive change in your future practice.

Qualities Of A Good Doctor Pixel Infographic

As a doctor, this activity of reflecting is actually formalised into a written exercise.

In order to revalidate as a doctor every year, I have to produce a set number of written reflections detailing events I’ve experienced and what I learnt from them.

Although it may sound easy enough, there’s undoubtedly a bit of knack to getting good at reflecting.

I’d go so far as to say it’s actually a skill you’ll develop over a lifetime, but having the innate quality of being able to look back over your past actions and draw learning points out will definitely contribute to being a good doctor.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Make sure your personal statement includes reflections on your work experience and achievements and not just descriptions of what you’ve physically done

Empathy

What makes practising medicine different from killing cancer cells in a laboratory, is that you’ve got a person, not a petri dish, at the receiving end of your actions.

In the often confusing and scary environments of A&E departments, operating theatres or intensive care units, a doctor can act as a point of contact to describe and explain exactly what’s happening (and what’s going to happen) to a patient.

It’s easy to forget how overwhelming healthcare settings can be, especially when you work there every day, but a strong sense of empathy will allow a doctor to appreciate how their patients may be feeling and so let them work to reassure them.

Empathy is integral to the patient experience.

Something as simple as fetching a cup of tea and a sandwich for a patient who’s been sat in A&E for 4 hours can turn their terrible evening into a slightly less terrible one.

From breaking bad news to commiserating family members, the quality of empathy is unquestionably vital to being a good doctor.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Gain an appreciation, through direct shadowing and volunteering, of the importance of empathy in clinical practice which you can draw on in your personal statement or at interview

Resilience

Resilience isn’t necessarily something you’d immediately associate with being a good doctor.

However, I can assure you it’s just as important a quality as any other on this list.

The reality is, the road to both becoming a doctor, and working as one, can be a bit of a long old slog.

You’ve first got the years at medical school, with make-or-break exams around every corner, then comes the somewhat relentless feeling years as a junior doctor, working long hours for relatively little pay.

Finally, after approximately 10 years in the game, you can exit the training pipeline and take up a post as a consultant.

Sometimes, you’ve got to be resilient to keep on pushing.

That could be continuing to sort out jobs long after your shift officially finished, that could be maintaining concentration in an operation that’s taking much longer than expected, or that could be meeting your next patient with a friendly smile after the last one was openly rude about you and your team.

Without resilience, a doctor is far more likely to burn out and so stop being able to deliver good care to patients.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Include in your application any extra-curricular achievements that you’re proud of and took considerable effort to accomplish

Respect

Respect isn’t just about being polite to your patients and colleagues.

Respect is also about taking anything a patient or colleague tells you seriously and acting upon it if required.

This could be a patient telling you that they received a substandard quality of care.

Instead of just brushing them off as a troublemaker, a doctor who truly respects their patients would explore this report to find out if anything could be improved for next time.

That being said, the core quality of respect does include a requirement to treat people professionally.

Shouting at a nurse because she forgot to give a patient a medication you prescribed isn’t respecting her as an individual.

Ignoring requests for advice from other doctors isn’t showing them respect as clinical equals.

The quality of respect is embedded in everything a good doctor does, from dealing with angry patients to teaching medical students.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Respect should be a mindset that shines through in anything you do as a medicine applicant, whether that be through volunteering or answering a question at your interview

Ability To Take Responsibility

A good doctor is always willing to take responsibility for their actions.

No matter how serious the consequences may be.

The NHS has actually formalised this requirement to take responsibility into the ‘duty of candour.’

What this essentially means is that anytime harm does, or could have, come to a patient the healthcare professional involved has to tell them about it.

I had my first experience of fulfilling my duty of candour about a week into my first job as a junior doctor.

One of my colleagues had asked me to help them out with a few small jobs, one of which was to take some blood from a patient.

A doctor working on her computer

Only taking down the patient’s bed space, I went to that bed on the ward and duly took blood from the patient lying there.

What I didn’t know, was that the patient my colleague had wanted me to bleed had just moved spots on the ward.

I’d taken blood from the wrong patient so immediately went to the patient I’d bled to explain the situation and apologise.

Thankfully, they really didn’t mind that I’d made the mistake but the same requirement for candour holds true even if I’d performed an operation on the wrong patient.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • At your medicine interview, they might ask you to talk about a time you made a mistake. Have an example prepared of how you responded quickly and honestly

Academic Ability

Academic ability is a quality required by doctors throughout their training.

There’s just no getting around the fact that to be a good doctor you have to learn and memorise a vast quantity of medical information.

Different types of drugs, their side effects, different diseases and their symptoms… Although as a doctor you can always look information up, you’re able to work much quicker and more efficiently if you have key facts memorised.

A second reason that to be a good doctor you have to be good academically is because of the sheer number of exams you have to take!

Unfortunately, exams don’t finish even once you’ve graduated from medical school.

Every medical specialty, whether that be anaesthetics, rheumatology or general practice, has its own specialist exams that doctors training in that field have to take.

Most people have excellent academic ability just by virtue of having been able to get into medical school, but it is certainly a quality that continues to be relevant throughout a doctor’s career.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Achieve top grades at school in order to support your medicine application

Dealing With Uncertainty

Finally, I think this last quality of a good doctor may be the most underrated on the list.

As a doctor, nine times out of ten you won’t be dealing with a complete information set.

Diseases very rarely present exactly as they’re described in the textbooks, so there’s always a bit of uncertainty regarding which symptoms a patient is describing could be down to a particular condition.

Every test we do in medicine has both false positive rates and false negative rates, so we can never be truly sure that a test has come back to us 100% accurate.

Serological tests being performed in the laboratory

Often times the investigation that would give us a definite answer just can’t be done for every patient we see. For example, it would be far too expensive for the NHS to MRI every elderly person with knee pain when the vast majority could be diagnosed with arthritis without the need for a scan.

Doctors have to be masters of treating the ‘most likely’ scenario, whilst always bearing in mind the ‘most serious’ diagnosis that could be underlying a patient’s presentation.

GPs are arguably the experts at dealing with this uncertainty due to the fact they have far fewer tests at their fingertips compared to their hospital colleagues. However, every good doctor will manage it to some extent.

How You Could Demonstrate This Quality

  • Talk about a time that you personally had to deal with an uncertain situation, how you dealt with it at the time and what you learnt from that experience

Final Thoughts

If you are in the process of applying to medicine, you may have recognised some of these qualities of a good doctor.

That’s because I selected the 13 most relevant qualities from the Medical Schools Council’s ‘Statement On The Core Values And Attributes Needed To Study Medicine.’

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of the attributes needed to study medicine also feed into a doctor being good at their job.

Everyone will have their own slightly different definitions of what the qualities of a good doctor are, but I thought these 13 were as good as any and could easily see how each applied to my working life.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.