Views & Reviews Personal view

The Doctor is sick

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 28 October 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4392
  1. Francis J Bowden, professor of medicine, Academic Unit of Internal Medicine, Australian National University Medical School
  1. frank.bowden{at}

    In his opening lecture to first year medical students, one of my friends shows an excerpt from the 1991 film The Doctor, which is based on the real life experience of an American surgeon. The film stars William Hurt who, when we first meet him, displays the stereotypical features of the macho surgeon—clinical acumen coated in arrogant self assuredness. He is a doctor who focuses on the disease in the person, rather than the person in the disease. When he is himself diagnosed with throat cancer we watch his journey from detached technician to vulnerable patient and, finally, to rejuvenated human being. The students enjoy the clip and usually offer undertakings never to behave like the unreconstructed Hurt. But as any wise teacher knows, instructional inputs do not automatically translate into learning.

    The “doctor-as-patient” piece is an occasional offering in medical literature and popular among the profession. One premise of these stories is that doctors have a unique insight into the medical system and are able to describe their symptoms with more clarity …

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