Some tips and wisdom from my doctor’s bag of tricks

Don’t drink on the job, don’t cover up mistakes and always check out the back stairs of a hospital

If I am ever called upon to do a Ted talk (you never know), I will be in good company, as that excellent resource shares with us the wisdom of people who are supposed to know what they are talking about.

I like to watch these talks, and learn all sorts of wisdom, hints and strategies from scientists, lecturers, entrepreneurs and comedians which I can put to work in my own life.

It occurred to me that doctors have their own bag of tricks that have evolved over millions of encounters; so I have selected a few of my own for delivery from the stage.

First, keep notes of anything that is important to you. The worst note is better than none at all, and experienced doctors have panic attacks if they cannot make notes about everything they do. They proof you against the future.


Think of yourself first. The analogy given to students is to make sure your own oxygen mask is on before you put them on the kids if the airplane is in trouble. The stressed, tired and distracted doctor is a dangerous prospect. In fact, the acronym HALT is used – don’t work if you are hungry, angry, late or tired. Medical administrators and politicians think this is airy-fairy nonsense when applied to doctors but not themselves. In fact, most doctors are grossly overworked and at risk of burn-out, which goes to show that you can learn from another’s misfortune. It can be a case of “do what I say not what I do”, as you get advice from a GP who looks in danger of keeling over from worry and exhaustion.

Active listening: this is the gift of listening without interruption. Most people will talk themselves out within a minute or so. It has all sorts of benefits – the patient will generally tell you exactly what the problem is without you having to think too deeply. And, if you practise it in the real world, you will get a reputation as a great conversationalist and may be given your own chat show.

Accidents will happen. Anybody who has worked in A&E has great respect for safety equipment and protocols. They will never roll their eyes and sneer at "health and safety" and post memes on Facebook about the good old days when we drank from the hose, drove the car after 14 pints and played with breadknives and weren't we grand? Life is tough enough without disregarding the advice of experts. Likewise, if there is good scientific evidence, doctors tend to take it. There are all sorts of guidelines and protocols for the management and treatment of conditions and you would want good reason indeed to disregard them. Politicians don't seem to feel the same constraints, especially when it comes to the environment.

Cop on

We all have the same biology. You can’t blame anyone under 20 for feeling immortal and indestructible, but after that age we should probably cop on. All that lifestyle stuff is really true. Any doctor who has observed people for a decade or two can tell you that exercise makes a huge difference. This truism is not confined to doctors. Vets can see a big difference between a regularly walked dog with a sensible diet and an overstuffed sedentary pet, yet we still spend an inordinate amount of time telling people what they know already. The only difference is the vet does not have to advise on smoking and drinking as well.

Some people who have difficulty dealing with doctors have difficulty with everybody, including teachers, civil servants and their neighbours. Give them a little patience and they may blossom.

If you are good at medicine that does not mean you are good at anything else, and certainly not business. In fact, all evidence shows most doctors have as much business sense as a ’70s rock star who is reduced to playing in a bar in Torremolinos while his greatest hit is on TV every night selling cars. Doctors who charge a lot aren’t mean, just broke.

Just because you are a doctor it does not mean you are a nice person. The same goes for priests, police and lawyers. Butchers, however, are always lovely.

Start planning your retirement the day you start work. Medicine, like rugby, is demanding, and you should quit before the job quits you.

The only sure way to judge a hospital is check out the back stairs. If they are clean it is a good one.

Don't drink on the job. This is a maxim that is true for most jobs, except hosting the Graham Norton Show.

You will make mistakes. If you drive for long enough you will get a puncture. Apologise and don’t cover up.

Squeamishness and embarrassment both wear off. This is best done when you are a teenage medical student and used to ignoring the sound of your every instinct screaming. You may in a quiet moment wonder why you obtained 720 points and paid several thousand quid to do this to yourself, but as you are unlikely to have quiet moments that is okay.

It will be worth it when you are as wise as the rest of us.