What Transferable Skills Do Physicians Have?

Raj Karnani, MD

As a physician immersed in a non-clinical career in predictive analytics, I often talk to hiring managers and recruiters in the health information technology industry. These individuals are curious to know what value physicians can bring to their organizations. While this may seem obvious to us as physicians who have practiced medicine at the bedside, it is not apparent to those that don’t. Physicians have innumerable, well-developed skills, and below are some of the most important transferable skills and traits to keep in mind.

1. Problem solving

Physicians are the consummate problem solvers. Each time they see a patient, they solve a medical problem or multiple problems. Solving patient complaints is frequently made with incomplete information and under significant time pressure, all under the real threat of a lawsuit if they are wrong. Physicians’ problem solving is done in a hypothesis-driven manner, meaning they immediately create a differential diagnosis based on the chief complaint and pursue questioning based on the most likely presenting problem. This practical problem solving can and often translates very well to non-clinical jobs. After all, employees are hired to solve problems – the employer’s ones. Experienced physicians have practiced problem-solving tens of thousands of times. It is impossible to be a physician and not be a master problem solver.

2. Empathic listening

Most people intuitively understand that to communicate, one person must be doing the talking, and the other needs to be doing the listening. Many people listen with the intent to respond, as in a debate, whereas empathic listening means to listen with the intent to understand the other person. Physicians are highly trained in this form of listening, and they have practiced it. Of course, the time pressures of today’s busy world of practice can make this difficult at times, but when time allows, making the patient feel heard is an integral part of beginning the healing process. If an employer needs someone to understand the customer’s needs truly, a physician’s skill in empathic listening will translate quite nicely.

3. Dealing with ambiguity

Physicians deal with the unknown all the time. When a patient presents with a complaint, it can be due to many things. A physician won’t know what’s going on until many questions have been asked, tests have been completed, and treatments have been tried. This uncertainty has to be managed well, and physicians have developed an innate ability to deal with uncertainty in a productive manner. If the path forward is uncertain, physicians can create possibilities and forge a way to get to the proper diagnosis. If an employer needs someone who can deal with uncertainty and even enjoy it, a physician might be an excellent place to start.

4. Determination

Training to become a physician is composed of an incredibly arduous set of tasks. First comes four years of college studying challenging premed courses. Then the medical college admissions test (MCAT). Then comes four grueling years of medical school with three separate medical licensing examinations that each require months of intense study interspersed in between. Next is three to five years of residency training, typically working 60-70 hours per week with many overnight calls. And finally, a board certification examination. If subspecialty training is required, then another two to three-year fellowship is needed, followed by a subspecialty board examination. Then, for every board certification a physician possesses, s/he needs to recertify every seven to ten years with a grueling written, and sometimes oral, examination. No one can do all this without being committed, and this commitment requires a significant amount of sacrifice away from family, friends, and hobbies. If an employer wants someone committed and has demonstrated sacrifice of one’s own needs to accomplish a goal, a physician is about as good as you can get.

5. Time management

When physicians see patients in the hospital setting, it is not unusual for them to have 15-20 patients to care for at one time. Each patient requires an interview, physical examination, a possible procedure or surgery, and a determination and discussion of the diagnosis and treatment plan. All of these parts need to be documented in the patient record. Interspersed among these patient visits are new admissions from the emergency room and numerous phone calls from nurses for questions and new concerns. A typical day can feel like a rat race. A physician must be disciplined with time management and highly organized to accomplish all these tasks. If something is missed, it can result in the worsening of a patient’s condition. Successful physicians know how to balance workload with time. If a job requires time management, which most do, a physician in that spot will be a good choice for any employer.

6. Intellectual curiosity

Physicians are trained to ask questions, lots of questions. We take courses on how to do this well when we work with patients. Physicians love to know how things work and why they work the way they do. If some aspect of human health is not well understood, it is not unusual to see a physician engage in research to answer the questions. All these characteristics translate to physicians being intellectually curious. This thirst for knowledge and finding the answer makes them an excellent candidate for an employer who needs someone to be a thinker, especially in a white-collar technical field.     

7. Conscientiousness

In a 2018 Gallup poll on America’s most and least trusted professions, the three most trusted were nurses, medical doctors, and pharmacists. Do you see a pattern here? Physicians are highly trained to do what’s best for the patient while maintaining high ethical standards. If an employer needs someone conscientious about doing the right thing and going the extra mile, it’s a good bet that a physician will do just that. Who was the least trusted profession, you may ask? Members of Congress. I rest my case.

So if you ever find yourself talking to a hiring manager or recruiter in a non-clinical field, this list is a great place to start in conveying your transferable skills. You have many transferable skills you may not even realize, so don’t sell yourself short.

And hiring managers, take the time to learn about medicine and what physicians do before a phone call or interview. Asking a recent college graduate to describe how they handled a difficult situation with a colleague might be a great question to ask, but for a physician, this is quite basic. Instead, focus on how physicians solve complex problems and learn new information quickly. You might be very impressed with what you hear!

Dr. Raj Karnani is an academic physician and a healthcare analytics translator. His analytics expertise provides a foundation for healthcare organizations to appreciate and utilize advanced analytics (i.e., predictive modeling, machine learning, artificial intelligence), thus providing a more robust platform for planning and actions in population health management, value-based care, and clinical research.

Furthermore, with knowledge, experience, and training in medicine, clinical data science, medical education, and healthcare management, he bridges the gap that frequently occurs on analytics teams between IT professionals, who seek clinical experience, and key business stakeholders, who seek data science expertise, to enable them to work more effectively as a unit.

To this role, Dr. Karnani brings more than a decade of progressively expanding management and development accomplishments with documented successes improving both business and clinical outcomes. His corporate and organizational background includes CommonSpirit Health, IQVIA, and Michigan State University, and he can help your organization be more competitive with the right analytics. Dr. Karnani can be reached via email and through LinkedIn.

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