On humility

Sondos Zayed is a medical student in the Class of 2018 at McGill University


Time and time again residents tend to give us, medical students, the same piece of invaluable advice: stay humble.

On one occasion, a resident said: “When you’re on the wards, seeing one case after the next and making diagnoses, you’ll feel like a god. That’s dangerous. So stay humble.”

I failed to understand how it was even possible, as a first-year medical student who knows so little of the vast ocean that constitutes the art and science of medicine, for me to become arrogant. I simply couldn’t make any sense of it. How could I, in so little time, accumulate enough knowledge to be not only confident — but to exceed this and reach a stage of arrogance? It took time and much more exposure to the practice of medicine for me to finally understand: in an environment where medical personnel hold powerful knowledge about health that their patients often lack, it can be easy to lose sight of how much healthcare providers have yet to learn and to master.

Humility is not in any way correlated with how much knowledge I have gained, but with the awareness of how much knowledge I lack and must still learn in order to develop as a physician and as a person. Humility is being able to realize and acknowledge when my knowledge is lacking and when I make a mistake. I must be able to “tolerate awareness of [my] areas of incompetence” (1); this is the first step towards improvement.

I believe I have slowly grown to implement the concept of being a life-long learner. There is a certain humility that comes with realizing that it is impossible to know everything, and striving to learn as much as possible despite this reality. I see no shame in admitting to patients when we do not have every answer to their questions, so long as we do our due diligence in finding these answers.

As Rick Warren once put it, “humility isn’t denying your strengths, it’s being honest about your weaknesses.”

(1) Ronald M. Epstein. Mindful Practice. JAMA. 1999;282(9):833–839. doi:10.1001/jama.282.9.833

2 thoughts on “On humility

  1. Dr. Donald Prior (Retired)

    You have already accomplished an understanding of the practice of medicine that some physicians never learn. One of the joys of medicine is that it is a lifelong learning experience full of new ideas and treatments always around the corner. Some of my greatest teachers were my patients.

  2. Harry Zeit

    We are lifelong learners. This is a challenge - one I've found endlessly rewarding & transformative.

    I worked for the first 22 years of my career as a board-certified emergency physician, always taking in new information, learning new skills.

    After that, I started practicing as a physician psychotherapy, with a special interest in psychological trauma. Not only do I continue to learn in this field, but I can look back and see how much I missed in the ER by not fully understanding the effects of trauma & dissociation.

    Med schools and residencies do a good job of teaching, but there are politics and egos involved, and sometimes there is suppression of important knowledge because of the inherent power structures involved, which will always have a ruthless edge.

    The best doctors will seek out this "forbidden" knowledge, without sacrificing their mastering of more accepted knowlegde. Humility and ethics will always lead us to the truth. Thank you for this article Sondos and good luck with your career and acquisition of greater knowledge and wisdom.


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