July 17, 2023

What qualities do you want in a doctor?


Oh yes, I’ve had appointments where I had to restrain myself from smacking the doc.  Where I’ve had to act sweet and pretty just to get a moment of air time to ask questions about radiation treatment.  Where tears have sprung the moment they stepped out the door because I couldn’t dare be myself in the doc’s presence.  This is why I was floored when I asked him and he said ‘yes’.

I’m talking about my doctor R. Michael Tuttle, MD at Memorial Sloan-Kettering - he’s one of the top thyroid cancer docs in the country.  We’re appearing together this Sunday on a two-hour radio special all about thyroid cancer and young adults. Perfect match right?  I’m a thyroid cancer queen (nine years and counting baby!) and he’s a thyroid guru.   So why was I  floored when he said yes to doing the show?

I’ve had a slew of docs in my cancer career. Most have been top of their game. Their skills were unparalleled, they were leaders in research, and trend setters in their field.  But most wouldn’t answer my questions in their office, let alone answer radio callers on a Sunday afternoon. They were all about science but seemed to care less about my patient experience.

I was actually cool with this. I’m a super empowered person and compensated from elsewhere for what my docs wouldn’t give me.  I hire docs for their skills not their personalities.

But with Dr. Tuttle, I now see that a good doc-patient relationship goes beyond my 15 minutes of face time. I have greater peace of mind and less anxiety about my cancer in general because I get from Tuttle the information I need. I also know that when patients have better communication with our doctors we are able to better follow their instructions for taking medications and adhering to treatment plans.

If I have to go doc shopping in the future, I will still choose skills over personality and communication style. But for now, I’m damn glad that I get to have it all.

What are the qualities you look for in a doc?  Did one ever make you cry?  Would yours do a radio show with you?  Do you have any questions about thyroid cancer and young adults you would like us to answer on Sunday’s show - medical, emotional, or social life stuff?  If you miss the show you can listen to the podcast.

To learn more about how young adult cancer patients have handled their docs’ personalities, read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Meenu Says:
    July 17th, 2009 at 4:46 AM

    Hell Yah, Dr. Tuttle is awesome. Man, that is so fantastic he is up for doing the show! Makes me appreciate him all the more. I am relieved to know in a few weeks I will get to talk to him again and get real information. the endo I am seeing currently in Seattle to handle my meds. spends 10 minutes with me during visits and rarely looks up from my chart or talks to me. and always in the back of my head I am thinking thank god I have Dr. Tuttle to handle my cancer stuff otherwise how would I be able to get any information from this endo?

    Best, Meenu

    p.s. I finished your book a few weeks ago and it was champion. it is going to take me awhile to check out all the resources you put in there! yay!!!

  2. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 17th, 2009 at 11:24 AM

    Are Tuttle’s ears burning? Does he know he has a fan club? The day that I got my first appointment on his schedule was a milestone moment in my cancer career. Great you are seeing him too. And thanks for the shout out about Everything Changes. Glad it struck a chord.

  3. Kate Says:
    July 17th, 2009 at 12:07 PM

    You know what? I was just reading Duncan Cross’s blog and he was talking about finding out if your doctor agrees with health care reform or not. That’s what I want, a doctor who is as concerned about my ability to pay for treatment as he is my ability to survive treatment.

  4. anonymous me again Says:
    July 17th, 2009 at 12:35 PM

    Hello all
    To me empathy and respectful manner are important. Other personality traits like friendly vs unfriendly, serious vs humorous, are not.

    I did switch my nephrologists. First one was “nice” as a person but really incompetent and I wasn’t going to risk my kidneys! I switched to one with a very good reputation. He doesn’t have an approachable personality and I was scared during my first appt (started with the worst case scenario etc) but it was very obvious he was extremely competent. He also took time to explain well the treatments. Turned out later that he was actually very caring as well, despite his bad-cop demeanor. It just wasn’t noticeable right away.

    My main doc has it all. I’m really lucky nothing feels compromised with him.

    Good luck sunday kairol.

  5. laurie Says:
    July 17th, 2009 at 2:07 PM

    Great that you two are doing this show, Kairol!

    I talk about this a lot in Life Disrupted, but after (literally) a lifetime of illness, I’ve seen the good, bad, and ugly. I’m tough, but I’ve had docs who have made me cry, who have made me irate, who have frustrated me with their ego, their condescension, their tendency to put their own inadequacies in diagnosing me back onto me. They’ve made me doubt myself, my sanity, and my ability to have some control over my own life.


    I’ve had some wonderful, intelligent, compassionate, and humble doctors. My current lung doc is Amazing. He listens, and we have conversations, not monologues. He trusts me to know my own body and instincts, and I trust him to think of treatments in terms of the whole person, not just the lungs. His stated goal is to help me manage my conditions as best as we can so that I can reach my own personal and professional goals. He’s e-mailed me after hospital releases just to see how I am feeling, and remembers details of my life.

    Not only is he the best doctor I have ever had in terms of communication as well as skill, he is also actively involved in research. He wears all the hats and wears them well and if I’m going to have rare lung stuff no one ever deals with, I could not be happier to have him as a health care partner.

  6. Shannon Says:
    July 18th, 2009 at 1:00 PM

    I was literally in the middle of switching endocrinologists when my “tumor marker” blood work came back elevated…..suddenly this doc that had barely said two words to me during the course of my treatment had alot to say….

    to be fair, I believe part of his terrible bedside manner is more cultural than anything else…especially since I am a woman (he is middle eastern) I spent too much time worrying about the fact that he wouldn’t look at me and not enough time realizing that he very competent at what he does. True getting information from him is sometimes like pulling teeth, but when it came down to it he knew exactly what to do and how to talk me down from my panicked state….(for the most part)

    it would be nice to have both the bedside manner and competence, however at the end of the day that is a rare find…..

  7. Pat Steer (Gaelen) Says:
    July 18th, 2009 at 3:20 PM

    I value skills (good hands, good minds, good diagnostics) above everything else in my docs. Some of them also have serious bedside manner skills; others don’t. But if their other skill-sets put them at the top of the game in treatment and research, then I can deal with communication difficulties.

    Awhile ago I blogged about my relationships with my docs, saying: “Dr. Personality is a brilliant, hard-@ssed scientist-doctor who is also my NYC medical oncologist. She’s not sweet and cuddly – but I don’t need sweet and cuddly in a white coat when I’m in the fight of my life. I can get plenty of ’sweet and cuddly’ from the red coats and blue roan coats with four legs who slept on my bed last night.”

    I have frequently compared Dr. Personality to my local medical oncologist - an equally brilliant doctor-scientist. The difference between them is that while both have some serious skills in the medical treatment/research area, my local oncologist knows who I am, where I work, that I train dogs and cook competitively for fun. He called me on his cell phone when he was on the road and his office notified me that I’d been hospitalized. He is the guy who told me that my diagnosis would ultimately be fatal-and that he’d do everything he could to put off ‘fatal’ for as long as possible.

    He’s the guy who hugged me a couple weeks ago when he realized that, together, we’d gotten me and my fatal diagnosis to five years overall survival. He’s the guy who wants to help me work on the next 5 years. Both he and Dr. Personality have my back, and I wouldn’t trade either one in for another.

    I don’t mind helping in a doc’s communication skills development.
    But I’d rather not be the practice patient while he develops his medical skills. ;0

  8. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 19th, 2009 at 12:59 AM

    When I posted this entry I thought I would get a slew of in the trenches comments about the horrible things people’s docs have said and done. It is encouraging to read how many of you are able to separate out the skills from the personality. I am also very struck by Shannon’s comment in seeing another side of her doctor. As patients with chronic conditions, we really develop long term relationships with our doctors, which can develop and even surprise us over time.

  9. Catherine Says:
    July 19th, 2009 at 8:48 AM

    Every patient needs a doctor who know how she feel, no matter what is the health problem. I would choose a doctor I am comfortable with, esp if he will my doctor for long.

  10. Kelly Kane Says:
    July 24th, 2009 at 7:00 PM

    Okay, we’ve met. My number 1 trait in a doctor I was looking for was - sense of humor. Almost like we were dating. But it’s true, if they can’t laugh at my randomness, or crack a joke here and there, well they can get the hell outta my way :) I ended up balancing it out and getting a super smart, super serious doctor too, which once and a great while says funny stuff too - once in a great while :)

  11. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 25th, 2009 at 3:01 PM

    Kelly - If you have a doctor who is an asshole but you have lots of fun laughing at behind his or her back does that qualify for your criteria of humor in the doctor patient relationship?

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