The musings of a final year medical student

Monday, 7 July 2014


Today, as my father came home from a day working at his General Practice surgery and gave us a review of his day he mentioned the concept mainly associated with William Osler: imperturbability. When Osler mentioned it, he referred to a permanent regard of tranquillity  of doctors in front of patients and colleagues in spite of whatever stresses the profession of medicine throws at oneself; like a swan that is effortlessly gliding on the water’s surface whilst it ferociously treads water beneath.

I then interjected how being a doctor can often seem like being an actor. Dad then brought up the interesting addition that, for some people, it may not necessarily be acting - those who have the shortest tempers or have the most telling facial expressions are the ones that are required to use their acting skills. I’m sure all doctors, regardless of their personalities, have to do a fair bit of acting at some point in their career, if not daily. Of course, experience will reassure and ease a doctor more and so they may become less flustered than they once were.

Osler made the point that, for a patient, a doctor’s silent communication can affect their confidence enormously. So if a doctor becomes angry or stressed with one patient, and then moves onto the next still carrying that agitated body language and facial expression, even though the second patient may be lovely and their malady not perplexing, patient number two instantly feels uneasy before the doctor has even said a word.

The point my dad made made me consider what does one define as acting in this context. So I looked up the definition: “to operate and function in a certain way”. Thanks, not the most clear and exact of definitions. But I wondered, if I am deliberately changing the way I behave, my mannerisms, tone of voice, body language, is there any deceit in that? If I am changing what is natural to me, even with only good intentions, is that really me?

Of course, repeated actions form habit, so one could argue that yes indeed, to consistently exert certain behaviour then forms a part of oneself. Maybe it’s actually a really good thing, if used to be more pleasant around the company of others. Maybe it just shows what a nice person you are and how much you care; the fact you are consciously changing your behaviour for the benefit of others. 

At the same time, there are clearly times when it is not a good sign to act. We all manipulate our behaviour depending on the social situation, say if we’re trying to impress someone, or the formality of the occasion.

But really, how much of our lives do we spend acting? If the answer is an awful lot, isn’t that a bit sad? Does that mean we’re desperately oppressed?

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