Fictional doctors who inspire

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Although real life role models have influenced many medical careers, some doctors have taken their lead from medics in books, television, and film. Have you ever read a depiction of a doctor in a novel, or seen one on screen, and thought, “I want to be like them,” or perhaps you thought, “That’s the kind of doctor I don’t want to be”?  The BMJ asked doctors, students, and patients to think about the fictional doctors who have inspired and influenced them. We hope these light hearted reflections conjure thoughts of your own favourites.

Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce chosen by Omar Khorshid, president of the Australian Medical Association

Hawkeye Pierce, from the television series M*A*S*H, was the wise cracking, irreverent, compassionate, and talented doctor who inspired my early career. His ability to tackle any surgery, from bullet wounds and blast burns to broken bones, his disregard for petty bureaucracy, his popularity with the nurses, and his surgical precision despite the shouts of “incoming” at the 4077th were the stuff of dreams for a young medical student.

Yet, as I’ve grown into my surgical career I think more about the care, consideration, and compassion he had for every one of his patients, that has stayed with me, long after the show said goodbye. Actor Alan Alda is also inspirational, using his stage and screen skills to help scientists communicate their work to the public, something that is vital in these times of a pandemic, fake news, and conspiracy theories.

Jack McKee chosen by Fiona Godlee, editor in chief, The BMJ

The Doctor was filmed in 1991 but still feels relevant today. In it, William Hurt plays heart surgeon Jack McKee who takes his elevated position in life for granted. He models emotional detachment and expects it in those around him. Then throat cancer forces him to confront his own mortality and the realities of being a patient in his own institution. On the way, he discovers how much can be gained by opening up to others.

The BMJ has carried many personal stories over the years from doctors unpleasantly surprised by their experiences as patients. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that doctors are ever patients in the way that non-doctors are. We have knowledge and networks that can help us navigate for ourselves and our families. These days The BMJ is more wary of such doctor-as-patient stories, preferring stories from “real” patients. But still, the classic final scene, in which McKee gives his trainees hospital gowns and leaves them to experience 72 hours as patients, is not only wonderful cinema but makes a crucial point: that doctors have to work to understand the patient perspective, what it’s like to feel frightened, embarrassed, vulnerable, and ill.

Karl Kennedy chosen by Catherine Gray, GP, Sheffield

Having watched the Australian soap opera Neighbours throughout my formative years, I choose jack-of-all-trades-and-specialties, Karl Kennedy; the epitome of the family physician. Kennedy demonstrates a huge breadth of knowledge and skill; readily tackling a variety of undifferentiated presentations and serving his patients with patience and compassion, despite their tendency to wander into his living room. It seems that Australian family medicine training is quite rigorous, as Kennedy’s career highlights, include performing an emergency crichothyroidotomy (on his own son) and power drill neurosurgery. Thankfully I have yet to need these skills as a GP in the UK.

Miranda Bailey chosen by Karen E Lasser, professor of medicine and public health, Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health

Miranda Bailey from the US television series Grey’s Anatomy is a strong and principled African-American surgeon. She helps save the life of a white supremacist and opens a free clinic. She is chief of surgery, a mentor to other women, and a mother. In my training I met few female surgeons. I was accepted to a prestigious medical school where the department of surgery required female students to wear skirts or dresses during their rotation. When I was a medical student, a male vascular surgeon reprimanded me when a lock of my hair fell into the surgical field. Bailey would not have tolerated such patronising behaviour towards women. My daughters, ages 13 and 14, are both considering becoming surgeons based on the strong impression this character has made on them.

Andrew Manson chosen by Samiran Nundy, emeritus consultant, Sir Ganga Ram hospital, New Delhi

The British headmaster of my boarding school in Darjeeling, Leslie Goddard, gave me The Citadel by A J Cronin to read. It is the story of a young doctor, Andrew Manson, who works in a small Welsh coal mining town in the 1930s. Manson encounters poverty and disease. He researches the relation between silicosis and coal dust, for which he is asked to leave. Manson then sets up practice in London where he meets doctors who over-investigate and overtreat wealthy patients and neglect the poor. Just when he decides to return to an ethical practice his idealistic wife dies.

The Citadel is a chronicle of Manson’s fight to free himself from materialism and it may have contributed to the creation of the National Health Service in Britain in 1948. The resemblance of medical practice in Britain in the 1930s to that in India in the 2020s is uncanny. I am glad and grateful to Mr Goddard for giving me this book, and both he, and my late idealistic wife, encouraged me to become a doctor and return to India to work.

Cristina Yang chosen by Viktorija Kaminskaite, fourth year medical student at University of Exeter

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, the fictional medical character who has inspired me the most has to be Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy. I started watching the show in my first year of medical school and fell in love with Cristina; she had the best lines. Despite serious character flaws, I loved her work ethic and confidence. She was not afraid to confront others or demand what she needed for herself and her patients. She was the strong female role model that my timid first year self needed. Although Cristina made many errors on screen, it doesn’t mean we can’t take the lessons learnt into real life.

Doctor Who chosen by Kevin Fong, professor of public engagement, University College London

I drew inspiration from the first doctor I ever knew anything about, Doctor Who. It wasn’t his bedside manner (he had next to none) but he was kind in his own way and believed in helping people.

In the 1970s we were only the second Chinese family to move into our town. We looked around for professional role models, but back then nobody prominent, in fact or fiction, looked much like us. So this particular doctor, strange and thoroughly out of place, struck a chord. Strictly speaking he wasn’t an immigrant, but he behaved as though he were; filled with curiosity about the places he found himself in, aware that they might be both wonderful and dangerous. He never felt like he belonged, but importantly he never tried to either. He was proud of being different and so celebrated his uniqueness. And when things got tough he survived by reinventing himself, carrying just a little bit of his former self on into the next episode of his life.

He was a fictional creation of course, existing only on television. But as an 8 year old, sitting on (and sometimes behind) the sofa I decided that this was the way you should live your life. Because, if you could be any doctor, you’d surely choose to be this doctor, the Doctor: the many and only Doctor Who.

Gregory House chosen by Andrew MacFarlane, third year ScottGEM medical student, University of St Andrews and University of Dundee

House, the long running US television series based on the character Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie, is an eight season example of how not to behave as a doctor. Despite this, since I watched my first episode at the impressionable age of 12, in which a burns victim was treated with maggots, I felt it would be cool and fascinating to be a doctor.

I maintained that wanting to be a doctor required more than liking a television show until one of my teachers forced me to go to a medicine symposium at the Royal College of Surgeons in Glasgow. I felt totally out of place; students from private schools were in the main hall while I was in a smaller room watching the day unfold on a television. When one of the speakers described how House was a major motivating factor in him wanting to become a doctor I felt a bit less daft for being there, however. It took me eight years and one degree later, I’ll be a doctor soon too.

The patient perspective: John Carter by Paul Wicks, a caregiver to a person with motor neurone disease

If I’d had the misfortune to be in a car crash, mugging, or falling helicopter incident I’d like to be treated by John Carter (portrayed in the television show ER by Noah Wyle). He’s authentic and disciplined, and with his childhood experience of losing a sibling to leukaemia has empathy for being on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship. Despite privileged origins he repeatedly returned to frontline work in the emergency room and for Médecins Sans Frontières. Like too many medical colleagues he was injured by one of his patients, the consequences of which led to a hidden battle with substance misuse.

My mum also liked him more than George Clooney.