The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.’’ – Sir William Osler, FRS FRCP
Physician recruiters are in the business of understanding the many skills and credentials a doctor needs to be considered a great fit for their job. Being a physician is much more than diagnosing and treating patients, though, it’s demonstrating compassionate patient care and a commitment to those patients. So, beyond academic degrees, residencies, clinical training, and board certifications, there’s another set of skills you need to assess: soft skills.
What are soft skills? Also known as “people skills” or “interpersonal skills," soft skills are subjective and reflect the human side of medicine. Soft skills are people and experience-related. They’re subjective, intangible, personality-driven, behavioral, and trans-situational – versus hard skills, which are rule-based, tangible, objective, and teachable.
Soft skills are usually what separates a good physician from a great one.
You could call it bedside manner, but soft skills go well beyond patient care. Soft skills are also the ability to work well with colleagues and other people in the mix. Here’s the rub: If soft skills are qualities, habits, social acumen, and even attitude – things that are intangible – how do you screen for them?
Hard skills determine whether you call a candidate for an interview, whereas the success of an interview is often decided by their soft skills.
Soft skills complement hard skills, so you probably won’t find them on a CV but they’ll become obvious from a candidate’s storytelling about their work. Watch for them and they’ll become apparent in interviews, and soft skills will rise to the top in nearly every communication. Peer assessments and other feedback from colleagues is a great way to learn about a candidate’s soft skills. A look at their published works will also offer hints about their soft skills.
Research has found that physician empathy improves clinical outcomes for patients – but that empathy declines as students go through medical school and become desensitized. So, believe it or not, some doctors are taking pains to improve their soft skills by attending creative and communication workshops that help them become more socially receptive and expressive in how they deal with patients and colleagues.
Many medical schools are now are now training doctors in literature and art for this same reason. Harvard launched a new initiative in 2015 to use more drama, dance, and literature to help medical students become empathetic and reflective doctors. “Efforts like these don’t aim to make doctors into artists," said Dr. Kenneth Ludmerer, a professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine who studies the history of medicine. They are “a tool to help doctors understand people and their conditions.” They help doctors see beyond the disease, the “narrow biological aspect,” to the illness, which includes anxiety, fear, and the whole human experience of being sick, says Dr. Ludmerer.
Doctors often work under severe stress, are overworked, and frequently deal with patients who are experiencing all-too-human emotions, so soft skills like patience is critical. Physicians are expected to practice as a team – and ultimately often lead that team – so soft skills like collaboration and communication top the list. Confidence, commitment, and flexibility make the list of soft skills, too, but there are more:
- Respect for others
- Problem-solving skills
- Time management skills
- A good listener
- Ability to work under pressure
- Leadership skills
- Ability to communicate via different modes
- Ability to accept constructive criticism and feedback
It’s true that soft skills often get little attention in the physician recruitment world, but soft skills genuinely help doctors be more responsive to the needs of patients and colleagues. More importantly for recruitment, making sure a physician’s soft skills fit in with the rest of your team is critical to keeping turnover low. Sourcing candidates with soft skills as well as traditional hard skills is a win for everyone.
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