Higgins’ paper discusses how to be great physicians

By Roman Petrowski, Office of Communications

Dr. John Higgins - Ten Treats to Be Great Physicians
John P. Higgins, MD, MBA, MPhil

A recent paper from John P. Higgins, MD, MBA, MPhil, professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, on the “Ten Traits of Great Physicians,” has been published in the American Journal of Medicine.

In the article, Higgins shares tips gathered from experiences throughout his career in medicine that he said he hopes will enhance the ability to practice medicine and improve patient experiences while differentiate great doctors from good doctors.

“Although many good doctors are well trained in the basic and clinical sciences, many great doctors hold that other habits are equally, if not more crucial,” Higgins said in the paper.

Be a Detective Like Sherlock
Higgins’ first tip is to always have the mindset of a detective and to dig deeper when something is not adding up with the care of a patient. He shares a story of a vision-impaired patient who was relying on his wife for proper heart medication dosages. As it turns out, her vision was deteriorating as well, leaving him to receive the wrong dose. After some “detective work,” Higgins and his team were able to identify the problem and reach a solution to offer the patient better care.

Get Healthy and Relax
The second tip in the paper is that in order to take care of other people, you have to also take care of yourself. This applies both physically and mentally for practicing physicians. Higgins not only encourages taking care of your body by completing physical exercise, but to also take time to “regroup, recharge, and recover, and don’t do things to the extreme.”

Be A Master Listener
For his third tip, Higgins recommends devoting your full attention to a patient and not only focus on what they are saying, but how they are saying it, and any other nonverbal clues they may be giving. He mentions that if your attention is elsewhere, like typing on a computer while the patient is speaking, a physician may miss a nonverbal clue that could potentially lead to a change in care.

Find Your Passion
Higgins’ recalls the moment that he fell in love with all things medical after suffering a minor injury when he was 9 years old. After accidentally running through a glass door, he was able to hear his heartbeat with a stethoscope for the first time as a distraction while his doctor sutured his knee.

“Meaningful work, especially that falls at the intersection of one’s values, passions, and strengths appear key for health care professionals to give their best,” Higgins said.

Treat the Whole Patient
Quoting Sir William Osler for this tip, Higgins’ next piece of advice is that “A good physician treats the disease. The great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” Higgins then shares the story of Gillian Lynne, famous for choreographing Cats and Phantom of the Opera, and who had trouble focusing in school at a young age.

Eager to find out what may be ailing her daughter, who was underperforming, frequently late, and often fidgety, Lynne’s mother took her to see a doctor. However, after observing Lynne, the doctor and her mother left the room, but not before turning on some music, and observing Lynne dancing in the room. The doctor explained to Lynne’s mother that there was nothing wrong with her daughter, and instead encouraged the beginning of her career.

Have Empathy
Higgins mentions that while empathy can be taught, oftentimes physicians are not good at practicing it, and that it can be difficult for a physician to put themselves in another person’s shoes, but by connecting verbally and nonverbally, speaking slowly, being curious, finding a common ground, listening actively, sharing, and always being supportive, one can affect a patient a great deal.

Three tips to having empathy that Higgins gives are asking yourself 1) “What would you think?” 2) “How would you feel?” and 3) “What would you like someone to do for you?”

Pay Attention to Detail
While working in the emergency department one night, Higgins recalls a time when he was able to help an unresponsive patient simply by paying attention to details. While working on a separate patient, Higgins heard a call for help from another stall and was quickly able to assist because he and the team paid attention to details.

He points out three takeaways from the lesson which are 1) Attention to detail; 2) Always have a plan B in case a problem occurs; 3) Everything we do or say, or fail to do or say, has consequences; and 4) Not all patients behave or respond equally.

Develop Resistance
Higgins quotes Charles Darwin for his eighth tip for being a great physician when the paper states that “It’s not the strongest of a species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most resilient and responsive to change.”

Higgins recalls the first time he encountered the death of a child while working in the emergency department and how hard it was for him emotionally. “Resilience is necessary to survive the frequent exposure to illness and death that doctors face,” he said. “You will need to take a step back and stay emotionally strong, knowing that you’ve done your best and need to move on to the next patient.”

Take Responsibility – The Buck Stops with You
Higgins mentions that physicians will encounter critical moments where every moment counts. In those moments, he says you will need a “quick mind, extreme calmness, and most important of all, decisiveness.”

Higgins says that as a physician you will experience both a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, as well as frustrations and disappointments, but that as John Rockefeller said, “the secret of success is to do the common things uncommonly well.”

Count Your Stars
Higgins’ final tip is that you can’t spend your life chasing money, or you will miss out on “counting your stars.” His advice is that when you truly follow your passions, money and fame will be a by-product of your efforts, second to the lives you have improved and saved, and the thousands more you have yet to touch.


Higgins has already received positive feedback on the sentiments expressed in his paper from physicians worldwide and hopes his article will help future generations of medical students to become great doctors.

Ten Traits of Great Physicians. Higgins JP. Am J Med. 2023 Apr;136(4):355-359.