Doctors are more agreeable and extroverted than their patients, but also more neurotic and less open, according to Australian research that suggests personality differences might impact on communication and treatment success.
The findings come from a study that compared two nationally representative surveys of self-reported personality traits; a study of the general public and a study of doctors.
The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey involved 25,358 members of the general public aged 20-85, which was further divided into 18,705 patients, 1261 highly educated people, and 5814 workers in caring professions.
The Medicine in Australia: Balancing Employment and Life (MABEL) survey involved 19,351 doctors, including 5844 GPs, 1776 “person-oriented” specialists (for example, obstetrics/gynaecology, paediatrics and psychiatry), and 3245 “technique-oriented” specialists (for example, endocrinologists, gastroenterologists, cardiologists, neurologists and oncologists).
Results, published in BMJ Open [link here], showed that doctors were more agreeable, extroverted, conscientious and neurotic than patients but less open.
The researchers said “unexpectedly” doctors also had a lower locus of control than the general population, meaning they were more likely to believe external forces, such as luck or powerful others, determined outcomes, rather than themselves.
Breaking down the results further, doctors were more agreeable than those who worked in “caring professions” such as education and support workers.
The highly educated appeared to be the most comparable group to doctors, except for neuroticism and a difference in agreeableness between the two groups which did not reach statistical significance, the researchers from the University of Queensland/Carleton University, Canada, and the University of Melbourne, said.
There were almost no statistically significant differences in personality between the different doctor specialities, with the exception of GPs who were more agreeable.
Compared with all doctors, technique-oriented specialists were more conscientious and less extroverted but the observed difference was not statistically significant.
Gender analysis indicated that female doctors were overall more conscientious and extroverted but also more neurotic and less open than their male colleagues.
“Overall, the comparison indicates that there is less variation in personality between doctors than there are differences between doctors and other population groups.”
The researchers suggested that these differences might have implications for the doctor-patient relationship and, as a result, the success of treatment.
“For example, being more conscientious has implications for treatment adherence as conscientious doctors may overestimate their patients’ ability to follow recommendations. Higher doctor neuroticism, which is related to stress, could lead doctors to see stress as a normal part of life, and, thus, underestimate the impact of [it] on patient wellbeing,” they wrote.
“Doctor agreeableness and conscientiousness increase patient satisfaction with care, but could potentially lead doctors to view patients — in contrast to themselves— as more confrontational and less conscientious than patients actually are, causing an asymmetry in doctor and patient judgements of one another, which could impact outcomes.
“By taking into account these differences, doctors can better calibrate their judgments of patients and gain insight into factors that influence their patient interactions.”
They also said the lack of difference between specialties suggested adding more doctors to a team would not increase diversity of personality-base perspectives.
“However, the differences found between doctors and those in other caring professions suggest that including non-doctor caring professionals in clinical teams will increase personality diversity and, thus, team performance,” they concluded.