25 Critical Skills Of A Doctor (That Every Physician Needs)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

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

In today’s fast-paced and demanding world of healthcare, a successful doctor must possess a diverse set of skills and abilities.

While technical aptitude and academic knowledge remain essential components of a doctor’s toolkit, a variety of other skills and proficiencies are being increasingly recognised as vital for delivering effective patient care.

In this article, I’m going to explore several key skills required by medical professionals, highlighting the importance of each in providing quality care to patients.

Having worked as a doctor in a wide variety of settings with a wide variety of colleagues, I’ve had the privilege to work alongside some incredibly skilled doctors and so had the chance to see firsthand what excellent care can look like.

Fundamental Knowledge

To be able to have any hope of being a good doctor, there’s some fundamental knowledge you need to possess to be able to safely practice medicine.

Human Anatomy Knowledge

In pretty much every specialty in medicine, a doctor must possess an in-depth understanding of human anatomy, which involves learning about the body’s structure and its relationship to function.

This includes knowledge of body systems such as the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and nervous systems.

A neuroanatomy textbook open on a table
Anatomy knowledge is a skill required by doctors

A solid understanding of human anatomy is essential for accurately diagnosing and treating patients, as well as performing surgical procedures if required.

Surgeons are the experts in this field, being able to accurately navigate around crucial structures mid-operation, however, you may be surprised how relevant anatomy can be to even the least surgically-minded specialties. 

Understanding Of Physiology

Physiology is the study of how the body functions, including cellular processes, organ functions, and overall bodily systems.

A thorough understanding of physiology is crucial for doctors in order to grasp the normal functioning of their patients’ bodies.

If you don’t know what ‘normal’ looks like then you’ll never be able to identify abnormalities and make informed decisions about treatments and medical interventions.

It’s only through appreciating a patient’s physiology that a doctor can understand on a cellular level what the treatment they’re prescribing will do and why it should benefit the patient.

Recognition Of Disease

Effective diagnosis and treatment of diseases and illnesses rely on a doctor’s ability to recognise patterns of symptoms and interpret diagnostic tests.

This involves having a comprehensive understanding of various diseases and the ways in which they manifest in patients.

The reality is, if you’ve never heard of a particular disease then you’re never going to be able to recognise and diagnose it when a patient with it walks through your door!

In conjunction with their expertise in anatomy and physiology, a doctor needs to be able to accurately determine the cause of a patient’s discomfort and recommend appropriate treatment plans.

Pharmacology Knowledge

Pharmacology, the study of drugs and their effects on the body, is another essential component of a doctor’s skillset.

This knowledge enables doctors to prescribe and manage medications for their patients efficiently and safely.

I remember it being one of the modules I struggled with most at medical school, simply because there were so many different drugs to learn about and their mechanisms of action!

It is, however, vital for doctors to be aware of potential drug interactions and side effects to ensure their patients receive optimal treatment while minimising the risk of adverse reactions.

Technical Skills

Practising medicine in the real world isn’t just about theoretical knowledge. To be able to be a good doctor, you need to be able to back up your book learning with a strong set of technical skills.

Physical Examination

Physical examination essentially means having a close look and feel of a patient’s body and seeing if you can find any evidence of disease.

This includes evaluating the patient’s appearance, palpating various body parts, identifying abnormalities, and asking pertinent questions.

Skills Of A Doctor Pixel Infographic

Proficiency in physical examination allows doctors to identify patients’ symptoms and make well-informed decisions about their healthcare.

Examination skills include knowing how to feel a patient’s kidney if they’ve got a urinary issue, knowing what the back of a person’s eye should look like and which tendons to hit to test different reflexes.

Clinical Procedures

Another vital technical skill for doctors is the ability to perform various clinical procedures. These may include taking blood samples, inserting IV lines, suturing wounds, and administering injections.

By mastering these procedures, doctors can deliver prompt and efficient treatment, contributing to improved patient outcomes.

Learning how to do some of these things was definitely a highlight for a lot of people in my year at medical school.

There really is something uniquely satisfying about being able to take a patient who accidentally cut themselves on a bandsaw say, and turn their wound into a neatly sutured injury that should heal with minimal scarring.

Use Of Medical Equipment

In order to not horribly embarrass yourself in front of the nurses and patients alike, as a doctor you need to be competent in using a wide range of medical equipment.

Familiarity with devices like stethoscopes, sphygmomanometers, otoscopes, and ophthalmoscopes are all crucial for accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Additionally, doctors need to stay up to date with advancements in medical technology to be able to use the latest kit and provide optimal care for patients.

An extreme example of this could be a surgeon going on a specialist course in order to learn how to use a surgical robot that’s controlled from the other side of the room from the patient on the operating table.

CPR

CPR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, is an essential life-saving skill that all doctors should possess.

It involves combining chest compressions and rescue breaths to maintain blood circulation and oxygenation in patients experiencing cardiac arrest (their heart stopping).

A doctor’s ability to perform CPR quickly and effectively can make a massive difference in the patient’s survival odds.

Cardiac arrests are some of the most stressful situations you’ll find yourself in as a doctor, so it’s incredibly important that you have a strong grasp of the principles of CPR in order to carry it out when it matters most.

Interpreting Medical Imaging

The ability to interpret medical imaging is a critical technical skill for doctors.

Medical imaging technologies such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs are used to diagnose and monitor a huge range of conditions in modern medicine.

When you first start to look at X-rays, the strange shapes and shadows really don’t mean much to you. But, as you start to see more and more, you gain an appreciation for what they should look like and what abnormal looks like.

By accurately interpreting these images, doctors can provide timely, accurate diagnoses and so develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Reading Lab Results

Finally, doctors must be proficient at reading and interpreting lab results from blood tests, urinalyses, and other diagnostic investigations.

These results provide crucial information about a patient’s health, including the presence of diseases or deficiencies.

Although they’re just numbers on a screen, a doctor who understands what they’re looking at can form a narrative of what’s happening to their patient simply from the results.

A doctor’s skill in understanding lab results helps ensure that the most appropriate course of action is taken to improve the patient’s well-being as quickly as possible.

Communication Skills

Effective communication serves as the cornerstone of good patient-doctor relationships, facilitating open dialogue, fostering trust, and enabling the accurate exchange of vital information.

History Taking

An essential aspect of a doctor’s communication skill set is history taking.

This involves asking patients about their symptoms, medical history, and lifestyle factors in a clear and empathetic manner.

It’s you asking questions to try to drill to the bottom of why the patient has come to see you.

Taking a history in a thorough and compassionate way allows a doctor to gather critical information for accurate diagnosis and proper treatment planning.

Although it might seem easy if you’ve never tried it, the significance of this skill is not to be understated, as it massively affects the patient’s experience.

Bedside Manner

Bedside manner encompasses the way in which a doctor interacts with patients during examinations, assessments, and treatments.

In other words, how you act as a doctor when you’re next to the patient in their bed.

A good bedside manner demonstrates respect, empathy, and attentiveness while being mindful of patients’ feelings, concerns, and dignity.

A doctor with a positive bedside manner helps in building rapport, understanding the patient’s perspective, and providing reassurance, which in turn positively impacts the overall healthcare experience.

It’s only till you’ve seen a doctor who’s got an incredible bedside manner work that you can appreciate what an effect it can have on the consultation.

Interpersonal Skills

As team players, interpersonal skills are crucial for doctors in establishing and maintaining relationships with their colleagues and patients.

These skills include active listening, effective verbal and written communication, empathy, teamwork, and conflict resolution.

Developing strong interpersonal skills helps doctors collaborate with their medical team, providing a cohesive and supportive environment for patients.

Research suggests that doctors with good interpersonal skills tend to experience higher levels of job satisfaction and less work stress.

Patient Explanations

An important aspect of communication for doctors is their ability to convey complex information to patients and families without using medical jargon.

By simplifying medical terms and concepts, doctors can engage in a more comprehensible and meaningful dialogue with their patients.

A GP talking to one of their patients
Explaining medical concepts might seem easy but is a real skill

This fosters a sense of trust and understanding, ensuring that patients are well-informed and empowered to make decisions regarding their treatment.

You spend most of medical school learning this new medical language and then the rest of your career as a doctor trying to translate it back to terms that patients will understand.

Organisational Skills

Organisational skills are crucial for doctors to effectively manage their workload, ensure patient safety, and maintain a well-structured healthcare environment.

Time Management

Time management is a vital organisational skill for doctors, as they often have to manage busy schedules, multitask, and allocate time for various tasks, such as attending to patients, consulting with colleagues, and handling administrative tasks.

I really didn’t know the definition of busy until I started work as a junior doctor in the NHS!

Effective time management allows doctors to minimise stress, enhance productivity, and deliver timely and efficient care to their patients.

Medical Record Keeping

Accurate and efficient record-keeping is essential in the medical profession, as it ensures that doctors have access to up-to-date patient information, which enables them to provide appropriate care.

Proper record-keeping can also reduce the risk of errors and enhance patient safety. Medical record keeping includes:

  • Documenting patient consultations and examinations
  • Recording test results and diagnoses
  • Tracking treatment plans and prescribed medications
  • Maintaining confidentiality of patient information

Prioritisation

Prioritising tasks is essential for doctors, as they are often faced with multiple demands and limited time and resources.

With effective prioritisation, doctors can focus on the most urgent or high-impact tasks, ensuring that patients receive timely and appropriate care in order of importance. Prioritisation involves:

  • Assessing the urgency and importance of tasks
  • Identifying tasks that can be delegated
  • Setting deadlines for tasks and adjusting them as needed
  • Continually reassessing and adjusting priorities based on changing needs and circumstances

This was something that I struggled with when first starting work as an FY1, but you quickly start to learn what’s urgent and what can wait for a few hours while you sort something else.

Leadership Skills

As you gain seniority as a doctor, you’ll find yourself in a leadership role more and more frequently. You need to possess the skills to act as an effective leader in order to draw the best possible performance from your team.

Decision-Making

A crucial aspect of being a successful doctor is the ability to make informed and accurate decisions.

This involves evaluating the situation, gathering available information, and choosing the best course of action.

It requires a doctor to be resourceful, pragmatic, and most importantly, empathetic to the patients’ needs.

You won’t always have all the information that you’d like available to you at that moment, but you still need to be able to make sensible decisions for your patients’ care.

Risk Management

In the medical field, risk management is an indispensable skill for a doctor.

This encompasses foreseeing potential issues, identifying areas where problems may arise, and taking appropriate measures to mitigate any adverse consequences.

Effective risk management allows doctors to maintain a high standard of patient care and ensure the overall health and safety of both their patients and colleagues.

In medicine, risks directly impact patients, so you need to be able to minimise the chance of harm coming to any of the people you’re looking after.

Confidence

Confidence is essential for a doctor as it helps instil trust in their patients and generally enhances the doctor-patient relationship.

A confident doctor can communicate effectively, explain the diagnosis and treatment options, and gain the patient’s consent to proceed with the recommended course of action.

Moreover, confidence also plays a crucial part in managing stressful situations and making split-second decisions.

Delegation

In an increasingly complex healthcare environment, doctors often need to work as part of a multidisciplinary team.

As such, delegation is a key leadership skill for any doctor.

Effective delegation requires assigning tasks according to the skills and strengths of each team member, ensuring clear communication and providing feedback on performance.

Through delegation, doctors can optimise team performance, improve patient outcomes, and create a collaborative working culture.

Personal Skills

At the end of the day, every doctor is also an individual; and individuals have a personal set of skills that can be very difficult to learn if you don’t already possess them to some degree.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is crucial for doctors, as it allows them to understand and empathise with their patients’ emotions and feelings.

This skill enables doctors to establish trust, communicate effectively, and make well-informed decisions about patient care.

As healthcare providers, doctors must be able to recognise and manage their own emotions, as well as those of their patients, to maintain a positive therapeutic environment.

Stress Management

Unfortunately, the truth is that the medical profession can be immensely stressful; therefore, it’s essential for doctors to develop effective stress management techniques.

This might involve incorporating mindfulness practices, engaging in physical activity, seeking support from colleagues, or adopting healthy work-life balance strategies.

By managing stress effectively, doctors can maintain their mental well-being and continue to deliver high-quality care to their patients.

Cultural Sensitivity

Cultural sensitivity is the ability to interact respectfully and effectively with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds.

As doctors often encounter patients with various cultural beliefs, values, and customs, it is important for them to be open-minded, tolerant, and adaptive to these differences.

Demonstrating cultural sensitivity enables doctors to offer culturally appropriate care and better understand the unique health needs of each patient.

Internal Motivation

A successful doctor must possess a strong internal motivation to provide the best possible care to their patients.

This intrinsic drive propels them to continuously learn and grow in their profession, keeping up-to-date with the latest medical advancements and guidelines.

Internal motivation also helps doctors to persevere through challenges, work long hours, and make difficult decisions, all while maintaining a commitment to the well-being of their patients and their profession.

Final Thoughts

While I have just described quite a few different skills that doctors need to possess, this is by no means an exhaustive list.

There are many more soft and hard skills that doctors combine in their work as healthcare professionals.

However, almost every one of these skills can be learned and worked on, meaning you’re likely more than capable of developing them if you decide to pursue a career in medicine.

As the landscape of healthcare continues to evolve, doctors who cultivate the skills above will be better equipped to navigate challenges and provide exceptional care for their patients.

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.