[From the February 2017 issue of the Digest]


Are doctors arrogant?

“Doctors are arrogant”

This is a refrain I have heard for many years, in many settings and from many people.

More recently a sequence of events has prompted me to once again reflect on this assertion. Is it true?

Every day, doctors are required to make consequential decisions, often based on a high degree of uncertainty and transmit that information with confidence. Is that arrogance or confidence?

By the very nature of our training and profession, are we not groomed to a level of arrogance—or self-belief in our decision making? Could we even perform our duties if we were paralysed and unable to take action unless we have incontrovertible proof on which to base our decision making?

Many top athletes have an unerring belief in the abilities that may be labelled arrogance, and yet they are lauded by society for their personalities over and above their individual physical skills.

So is ‘arrogance’ acceptable?

I would argue that the feature that distinguishes confidence from arrogance is respect.

Imagine three people tramping in a forest, who—late in the day—become uncertain of their location. Person A stridently states her opinion of their position. Person B offers an alternative opinion, while Person C remains silent. If Person A dismisses the opinion of Person B and sticks to her own opinion, she could be deemed arrogant. But if Person A listens to an alternative view, considers and discusses the merits of the alternative, then ultimately sticks to her own position, she could be labelled confident.

So too with the doctor-patient relationship. “Telling” a patient what to do without first listening and understanding is arrogant. Confidently offering an opinion following mutual discussion is shared decision making.

Respect includes understanding another person’s skills, beliefs, desires, culture, knowledge etc. Respect requires listening to others and understanding their position. Respect does not automatically include agreeing with another, but does include an understanding and regard for an alternative viewpoint.

So, as doctors do we do this? The recent Health and Disability Commission’s report for 2009-2015 revealed that in any given year, 4 percent of doctors are complained about, with only 3 percent of these found to have breached a patient’s rights. However, “Disrespectful manner/attitude” was the third commonest breach described.

In advocacy in politics, in public, doctors should be especially diligent in remember the core aspects of our profession. We owe others respect, so we can offer opinions with confidence, not arrogance.