The Art of Doctoring – Inspiring
a Generation
Robert J. Dempsey, MD

he completion of medical training and cine, but Oscar Wilde claimed that nothing that doctoring is hard work, that you work too
the start of a career is one of the great truly worth knowing can be taught. Indeed many hours—but never believe it. Whether it’s
transitions in a physician’s life. It is there might be a bit of truth to this. Look me taking a brain tumor out of a child in sub-
a time for reflection, a time for pride and sat- at politics. Arguably our greatest president Saharan Africa, or my colleagues working to
isfaction, and a time for new challenges. The and certainly our most eloquent, Abraham stop a resistant bacteria from becoming the
following is my contribution given as the com- Lincoln, was also our least educated. world’s next plague, or a generation of doctors
mencement address chosen by the graduating Scholars think he had at least 6 months of trying to influence their patients to take con-
students of the 2013 class at the University total education. So what was the last 4 years trol of their health to stop the modern plagues
of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public
Health. It is my attempt to summate what I have
learned about the art of doctoring and to chal- You will be teachers for all of your patients,
lenge them to fulfill the promise and possibility
of their talents, their efforts, and their inspira-
and you must be. But the role of a teacher in medicine
tion. goes beyond individual patients. You must
• • •
also teach yourself and your peers.
It is a great honor to be here. This is truly
wonderful. As a teacher, I’ve often said that of
all the days of the year, this is the best because about? Certainly it was not about mnemon- of obesity and diabetes, it all starts with the
it marks your accomplishment. All of you as an ics. It was about inspiring you to discover patient before you who has a need and you
extended family. And that you share it with us this thing that we call the art of doctoring. It care enough about them to do the best for
—your teachers—that’s inspiring. And indeed, is what Yeats called “lighting a fire, not filling them. When you do, the hours fall away and
inspiring doctors is exactly what I’m talking a pail.” It is a lifelong discovery. It may seem you are fully engaged in your life, and in this
about today. But first—a teacher’s confession: odd for a neurosurgeon to talk doctoring. field you must be. You see, as students you
All of you in the front row—remember the Krebs Neurosurgeons are supposed to carry an ego observe, you practice, you’re protected—but
cycle? I don’t either. The back row—remember so large it requires a wheelbarrow to follow now, from this day forth Doctors (what a won-
all those mnemonics you used to help yourself them on rounds, but I think people that know derful title, “Doctors”), patients will put their
get through anatomy class? They don’t work in my career know that it has been spent trying lives, their happiness, and their future in your
the operating room. It is a bit of a dilemma. You to bring down those barriers. I have been at hands. Great doctors are truly engaged.
thought you came to school to be taught medi- this attempt to discover for myself this art of Second: Great doctors are creative. Be
doctoring for 40 years. I hope I never stop. proud of what you have learned; be proud of
So let me share with you some of the lessons the techniques and practices you know. But
• • •
that I have learned myself and hope you find also be totally dissatisfied with them. When the
Robert J. Dempsey, MD; University of Wisconsin similar ones in your continuing education in patient is before you, then nothing we do for
School of Medicine and Public Health, 600 this doctoring. cancer, heart disease, or Alzheimer’s is good
Highland Ave, Rm K4/866, Madison, WI 53792; First: Great doctors are in love with their enough. I do not want you to treat me with
phone 608.265.5967; fax 608.263.1728; e-mail
jobs. Your college classmates may tell you the techniques of my professors. I do not want

VOLUME 112 • NO. 5 189

none of It’s what the student heard and understood. You must also teach yourself do. It could be a very nontraditional family. you can do it. the kidney. They inspire impossibly rich and famous. but I will share and your peers. and forget the heart. Do you know what “Doctor” tor as well. It is a very individual thing. are to create and change or the world will pass and patients. Because on that day I Next is family. He himself as a youth was whole person. while police said there may be graph her and that picture hangs in my office a third bomb. who will take care of her when in the that. Do nothing to lose that. mal. where I look at it often. This is whole person is all about your integrity as a doc. For me it is faith. and as I after the explosion gives me faith and inspires entered the courtyard at evening. I still believe in the essential goodness of played. I sought permission to photo. attacked by slaves who attempted to murder do. and create for future patients a world that will my favorite part. but it is a guide to find the right path for 1 day. bureaucracy and greed (be careful of ers for all of your patients. Lincoln. by Native Americans. I saw a young me: medical personnel rushed into the blast child selling fruit. doing so. Now go and inspire others every they know I’m working on their problem. people in whom you can want you to be agents of disruptive change. you get down to their be afraid of research. He gave him a cornet. But he mentored a 16-year. people with whom you are safe. You must be teachers of your most important lesson: Great doctors are great “Doctor. You need about the true meaning of integrity. “How is your research going Doc?” because improve. I’ve always observed that great doctors inspiring me. and you will inspire me. of that bring it all into focus. You PhD. to look after yourself Third: Great doctors are teachers. and son and hold true to the values that brought come out and expect to have their trust if they you to medicine in the first place in a world of cannot understand what I say. ing because when I go to my clinic. I’ve never seen it work the what they said or what material they covered. it 190 WMJ • OCTOBER 2013 . other way around. It is from how you treat people. I this is hard work. But these are that I taught you—I want you to surpass me. This is true in all fields. area to give aid. and to be in love with what you old reform school kid. conflict. music was never the same and the But I am not talking about icons. care. You don’t treat the brain You acknowledge them. the social level and you listen. and when Louis Armstrong him. and in who make you laugh when you so need to. Faith or moral code may be formal or infor- For me this was made so apparent by 1 person. You show integrity by treating the whole are embarking on the greatest of professions. We all Finally. them dear. you. But greed!). I don’t have a problems. and you must be. You are able to serve because cannot tell a patient that I’m going to go into you’ve taken time to develop yourself as a per- their brain. I had taken the feet of children. not you to go to the places we will never visit—to confide. or a patient’s very access to health can understand. to care for yourself. to teach—and of doctoring. Look in music. And when it’s true. You need to know the Latin for “whole. And how do you do that? By having a the role of a teacher in medicine goes beyond value system you compare to for everything you individual patients. to the to have scientific curiosity. but he treated people as he saw was right. You must learn and grow if you with you what I value. But what I saw immediately care of some hundred patients that day.” Congratulations and thank you for patients if you wish them to take charge of their people.” this art ask. At one time. American music was Fourth: Great doctors have integrity. I became a teacher of doctors because we need people you hold close. you by. to be creative. Be it DNA or clinical out. repair a leaking blood vessel.” It means you are true to cleaning lady you pass every day. they will teach you. From the patient. most obvious is patients—the people dominated by something called “Dixieland” and know the icons of Schweitzer. clearly his fame man even though his namesake was murdered you to create. but I will soon have 30 years of NIH fund. You decide how you define thought.” which Treating yourself is the root of the final and how you came to be called the Latin docēre. You explain so that they comes research. Don’t the complete mission. to the CEO. A great teacher knows it’s never about really like people. to teach yourself to develop your would live forever. family. to serve. people settle for just what you know so far—I want you treat the patients we will never see. And you must teach your fellow doctors. It has always been about teacher was surpassed and forgotten. of Paul Farmer. I am talking men and women. You will be teach. show how you earned that role of teacher and means? It is from the Latin “docēre. means teacher. you can do research and show creativity. the true source of that the leader of that was a man named King to treat my children with the techniques future she is sick and I’m not here? That day I could be a family of colleagues. Hold to create a better way. It is something to help you make sense of I was working in the mountains of Guatemala a world where people in Boston place bombs at during the time of their civil war. my patients patient and by realizing the need to continually Cushing called it the “divine vocation. He fought to the death for the rights of inspiration and your best teachers. because how you treat your day to be that teacher. taught him music. 1 place—it was a great gift for me to see. health.

business operation and contents of the WMJ.442. The managing editor is responsible for oversee- ing the production. or organizational it does not screen public health. socioeco- nomic. Although letters to the editor are reviewed by the medical editor. WMJ (ISSN 1098-1861) is published by the Wisconsin Medical Society and is devoted to the interests of the medical profession and health care in the Midwest. Hospital Literature Index. For reprints of this article. WMJ is indexed in Index Medicus.The mission of WMJ is to provide a vehicle for professional communication and continuing education for Midwest physicians and other health professionals. The editorial board. solicits and peer reviews all scientific articles.3800 or e-mail wmj@wismed. contact the WMJ at 866. © 2013 Wisconsin Medical Society . all signed expressions of opinion belong to the author(s) for which neither WMJ nor the Wisconsin Medical Society take responsibility. chaired by the medical editor. and Cambridge Scientific Abstracts.