Do patients contribute to the God complex in surgeons?

Medical oncologist, Dr. Ranjana Srivastava wrote on the subject on how doctors treat doctors may be medicine’s secret shame in the Guardian back in February 2015.

About a month later, vascular surgeon Dr. Gabrielle McMullin used a book launch speech to expose the problems of sexual harassment in the surgical profession.  She highlighted a story of where a neurosurgical trainee had refused sexual advances and subsequent to launching a formal complaint, her career was ruined. Her statement that, “she would have been much better to have given him a blow job” made national headlines in Australia.  This opened a can of worms and numerous stories suggesting a toxic culture of bullying, harassment and sexual discrimination were aired.  Under pressure, the Royal Australian College of Surgeons (RACS) acted swiftly and appointed an independent expert advisory group (EAG) to investigate and to make recommendations.  Six months later, the draft report of the EAG  was published and results were “quite frankly shocking” as in the words of the president of the RACS.  The report was released in conjunction with a formal humbling apology that has been uploaded to YouTube.



There are probably multiple reasons why this toxic culture exists.  One reason that seems to attract less attention is the attitude of self-importance and self-entitlement and being beyond reproach — or in other words a God complex that surgeons have acquired through their own experiences and being trained to think this way from their mentors.

Hardly a working day goes by without a patient or their relative telling me how brilliant I was in helping them in their prostate cancer journey. I am always humbled and appreciative of these positive comments.  However, I am a very well-trained surgeon who works hard and is obsessive compulsive in trying to do the best for my patients.  I’m just doing my job.  I’m well paid for what I do.  I have amazing job satisfaction.  Often I feel that I have the best job in the world.


But why such adulation for a person who is simply doing their job well?  What we do for our patients is very personal so obviously means a great deal to them.  Additionally there is a significant power imbalance, particular with knowledge and the fact that patients effectively surrender their trust upon us when we perform surgery upon them.

Patients are complicit to the God syndrome acquired by surgeons.  Health reporter Harriet Alexander is on the money when she  writes, “For every surgeon who has a God complex, there is a bevy of complicit patients.”  If you keep telling surgeons how brilliant they are, after enough times, they’ll really start believing it.

By all means, be appreciative of the work done by surgeons, but stop the excessive praise for well-trained individuals who are simply doing a great job of what they were trained to do.


Henry Woo is associate professor of surgery, Sydney Adventist Hospital Clinical School, University of Sydney, Australia. He blogs at Surgical Opinion and can be reached on Twitter @DrHWoo.