Behind every great surgeon there’s a grateful patient, writes Henry Woo:
It’s been six months since vascular surgeon Gabrielle McMullin first blew the lid on sexual harassment in the surgical profession with a no-holds-barred book launch speech and an incendiary interview where she claimed the safest thing for a trainee’s career was comply with requests for sex. It opened a can of worms, with a succession of trainees and doctors coming forward with stories suggesting a toxic culture of bullying, harassment and sexual discrimination.
Under pressure, the Royal Australian College of Surgeons acted swiftly and appointed an independent Expert Advisory Group to investigate and to make recommendations. The EAG‘s draft report, which detailed a culture of bullying and harassment, was described as “quite frankly shocking” by RACS President David Watters. The report was released in conjunction with a formal humbling apology that has been uploaded to YouTube.
But why does this culture exist?
There are probably multiple reasons. One that seems to attract less attention is the attitude of self-importance, self-entitlement and being beyond reproach – in other words a God complex – that surgeons have acquired, both through their own experiences and inculcation by mentors.
Hardly a working day goes by without a patient or their relative telling me how brilliant I was in helping them in their prostate cancer journey. I am always humbled and appreciative of these positive comments. However, I am a very well trained surgeon who works hard and is obsessive-compulsive in trying to do the best for my patients. I’m just doing my job. I’m well paid for what I do. I have amazing job satisfaction. Often I feel that I have the best job in the world.
So why such adulation for a person who is simply doing their job well?
What we do for our patients is very personal so obviously it means a great deal to them. Additionally, there is a significant power imbalance: patients effectively surrender their trust to us when we perform surgery upon them. We have the knowledge, and this is a powerful thing indeed.
Patients are complicit to the God complex acquired by surgeons.
Health reporter Harriet Alexander is on the money when she writes “For every surgeon who has a God complex, there is a bevy of complicit patients.”
If you keep telling surgeons how brilliant they are, soon enough, they’ll really start believing it. By all means, be appreciative of the work done by surgeons, but it’s time to stop the excessive praise for well-trained individuals who are simply doing a great job of what they were trained to do.