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What's My Line?

Just as you've suspected, doctors are drawn to fields that fit their personalities. (No wonder, then, that ER physicians are adrenaline junkies.)


Dr. Brian Johnston, medical director of the Emergency Department at White Memorial Medical Center, bounds out of his office, apologizing that he's running late for the interview.

His desk, visible behind him, is piled with paperwork, but it's downright orderly compared to the desk in his other office on the hospital's ground floor. Amid three dozen precariously stacked Journals of Trauma is so much paper that it's difficult to determine the desktop's color.

Johnston's Desk Tour '96 continues to the office of Dr. Ramsay Nucho, a cardiac surgeon at the hospital. He's not in, but office manager Judie Natividad opens the door to reveal a desk that looks almost shrine-like.

A 3-D model of a heart sits at one end of Nucho's polished cherrywood desk. Nearby, a telephone and a framed picture. Nucho's computer and printer, dust-free, are off to the side. Next to his immaculate desk blotter is a neat, short stack of Manila folders containing medical charts of the patients to be seen this particular afternoon.

It's no coincidence that the heart surgeon's office is spotless and the ER doc's is, well, not. And it's no mistake that your orthopedic surgeon isn't a pediatrician and your brain surgeon isn't a plastic surgeon.

The dissimilar personalities of medical specialists can make the differences between cats and dogs seem blurred. These differences--the subject of good-natured ribbing among the specialties--go back to the days when Adam's endocrinologist first quipped, "How many psychiatrists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"

But what are the forces at play? Why do cardiac surgeons have a reputation for being precise neatniks? Why are emergency medicine doctors known for thriving in chaos? Do certain personality types gravitate toward specific specialties or do the demands of the specialties mold personality?

Thomas G. Grandy, a psychologist at Creighton University, Omaha, and his colleagues have conducted career counseling with medical students. They have also researched the personality traits of dentists.

Medical students who like action and crises often go into emergency medicine, Grandy says. Students who enjoy figuring things out often end up in psychiatry.

Students with a "feeling" type personality, as determined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator--a psychological measure to determine personality preferences and other data--"like developing a relationship with their patients," Grandy says. "Internal medicine and pediatrics would be a possibility, and so would public health."

Med students who like routines and dealing in details are likely to be found in general medicine and family practice, he says, "and, to some extent, maybe surgery."

And the introverted lovers of reason and structure are likely to move to dental school. "True, true, true," says Huntington Beach dentist David Meirovitz. "Dentists are nit-pickers and live in their own little environment. How big is a mouth--4 inches by 3? We're very similar to CPAs."


An informal polling of Southern California-area doctors shows that it's clear which personality type is headed toward which specialty during the first few weeks of medical school:

* The future orthopedists were the ones in "muscle beach" attire, says Dr. Richard Wright, a cardiologist and director of the Heart Institute at St. John's Hospital and Health Center. They were probably playing basketball or rounding up dorm mates for flag football.

* Looking for the internists-in-training? Try the library. They're known for gathering as much information as possible (and knowing how to spell "compulsive").

* Pediatricians-to-be? Look in the video arcade for these perpetual adolescents.

* And med students "who were a little odd," says a physician who asked to remain nameless, "went into psychiatry."

As medical school progresses and students become practitioners, the stereotypes crystallize. Among those offered up anonymously:

* Cardiac surgeons, driven and dedicated, tend to see things in yes or no terms, says a physician in another specialty. "Fish or cut bait. They tend to be pushy." When a cardiac surgeon decides it's time to head to the operating room, stand back.

* General surgeons are characterized as medicine's spoiled brats, the prima donnas who throw instruments around the operating room when things don't go their way.

* Anesthesiologists are philosophical and get along with the world. What choice do they have? They live with surgeons, who constantly give them grief.

* Plastic surgeons are labeled "narcissistic," especially if they focus on cosmetic rather than reconstructive surgery.

* Neurologists and neurosurgeons win the "most arrogant" award. Some doctors complain that these brain gurus talk only about gray matter, referring to the rest of the body as "supporting structures."

* Dermatologists "love the bucks," a fact often reflected in their high-volume practices. Along with allergists, dermatologists rarely, if ever, know the agony of emergency calls at 2 a.m.

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