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Mar. 11, 2010

Doctors are Not Only Scientists

by Linda Brodsky

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Our friend Rosalee Washington asked, “Should I major in something that has to do with science if I want to become a doctor?” This is a really good question. Do all doctors need the same skills? The same talents? Have a certain personality?

First the skills. Doctors learn to apply scientifically based knowledge to human beings who live, behave and act in wholly unscientific ways. Biology intersects with culture and politics and geography and much more. Cultural values and social systems may impact our health and well-being as much as or more than our biology in some cases. Think about the violence in some communities that takes the lives of innocent people. A doctor can treat the wound and maybe save a life, but only society and culture can control the behavior.

All doctors do not need the same set of skills. So there is no one “doctor type.” There are doctors who spend most of their day in their offices seeing patients, talking, looking at lab tests and doing what most people think doctors do. It made for a great TV series 30 years ago when Marcus Welby was popular. And there are some doctors who spend all their time seeing patients for a few minutes in a hospital emergency room and then move on to the next (do you any of you remember ER?)

Other doctors never (or hardly ever) talk to or directly see a patient. Those doctors still can play an extraordinarily important role in a patient’s care. Take the pathologist. A pathologist is a medical doctor who is responsible for looking at samples of tissue or body fluids that are removed from a patient in order to determine a diagnosis. They may be given very little information about the patient. Sometimes they just know the age, sex, and where the tissue sample came from. And yet their assessment, based on the different types of tests that might be done on that tissue, will determine everything that happens to the patient after that. They have an awesome responsibility in the patient’s care.

Their participation is more likely to rely on knowledge in the “science” of medicine (and physics and chemistry and imagery) than in how they interact with patients, which they rarely do. They need sometimes interact with other doctors. But their skills are more like those of a detective who has to take all the clues scientific testing of parts of the body (or in the case of an autopsy, a dead body) and try to figure out what has or is happening to that patient.

The radiologist is a doctor who interprets “films.” He or she is presented with images made from x-rays (radiation), MRIs (magnetic waves creating images), ultrasounds (sound echoes against tissue interfaces), PET (positron emission) scans and other types of imaging taken to determine the problem a patient might face. Radiologists need to have an in-depth understanding of physics (not my best subject for sure!) than might another type of doctor. Being able to imagine 3-D anatomy and computer savvy skills are also helpful.

Or take a doctor such as the pediatric surgeon. That doctor has to develop skills in caring for children, listening to families, and manual dexterity in working on small, fragile patients. Fixing very small delicate people who are fiercely protected by their families requires a completely different set of skills.

So you see, Rosalee, science, while very important, is not the only area of study that helps you to become a doctor. To become a doctor you have to be determined to become one. Learn your science, but study anything else that might interest you. Whatever you learn, you will find useful in whatever type of doctor you want to be.

About Linda Brodsky

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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