Blog | Thursday, December 6, 2018

What physicians can learn from politicians


Shock. Horror. Did you just read the title correctly, or are you seeing things? Well, after you recover from the shock of reading a line you probably never thought you could possibly see in writing, let me tell you this: physicians and politicians are probably as opposite as you can imagine in terms of their daily work life, guiding principles, and yes—level of respect shown to them by the general public. Doctors dedicate their careers to helping people and like to pride themselves on always being models of honesty and high morality. Politicians, well, I'll let you decide.

Election days are a special day for American democracy, when we all get to exercise our right to vote and choose our elected representatives, I thought this would be an appropriate topic. It's easy to take our freedoms today for granted, and forget how long of a journey mankind has been on to get to this point. Democracy is to be cherished. It may have its drawbacks and be imperfect, but we do need politicians and people who stand up to make tough decisions. The alternative is too dark to contemplate. Winston Churchill once said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” That's a very true statement.

There are some bad politicians out there, and some reasonably good ones, likely dependent on your own worldview. Successful ones however, have succeeded in large part because of their savviness and ability to communicate. Here are three lessons that may be relevant for physicians:

1. Keep the message short and simple
Doctors, being scientists at heart, frequently communicate in over-complicated technical jargon when they talk to patients. They forget that most people out there (even otherwise highly educated folk) are not familiar with most of the everyday medical lingo we use. I've seen highly experienced and well-recognized physicians, have some pretty shocking conversations with patients and their families! They mean well, but just forget to keep things simple. Successful politicians understand that whatever angle you are coming from, human understanding on important topics is best reinforced by very simple and straightforward messages. People also have short attention spans in general. Oh, and catchy soundbites totally do work, whether we admit it or not.

2. Use emotions in the right way
Human beings are highly emotional animals. Politicians unfortunately frequently play into this in the wrong way for the benefit of their own ambitions. But keeping this in mind, emotions can actually be harnessed for tremendously positive effect as well. Whether it's reinforcing a reason why weight loss needs to occur for their own health, why they need to take their medicines on time, or the absolute necessity of following up with you in one week, there is an effective and sensitive way to do this.

3. Know that you are always on stage and your words matter
Politicians know that when they step out in public or go on camera, everything about them is going to be analyzed. Every single word, their body language, and what they wear. Their language is going to reverberate across the country and perhaps all over the world too, depending on how important they are. How many doctors have this level of self-awareness too? We are actually viewed as leaders in our hospitals and clinics at all times, even if we don't have any other title beyond MD. From the housekeeping staff to the cafeteria cashier—our fellow professionals know that we are the people who make the final call in clinical situations. The buck stops with us. We owe it to everyone to be aware of this and strive to be role models.

I hope you have recovered from the shock of the title by now. It's a privilege to be a physician, despite all the challenges we face in health care. There are few more important jobs to society, and when we make it all about our patients, there is never a wasted moment. Rarely can we ever come home feeling like we haven't done anything meaningful with our day.

And going back to politics, it's a privilege to live in a peaceful democracy and free country. Sadly something too much of the world still can't say in 2018. I hope no matter what your political point of view, whatever issues are driving you, you exercise your right to vote.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author and speaker. He is the founder of DocSpeak Communications and co-founder at DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, where this post first appeared.