10 Steps To Avoid Becoming "That Doctor"
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” - Dr. Viktor Frankl
Recently, I was examining a 4 year old boy who came to the clinic with a cough. As I bent my six foot five inch frame down to his level and pressed my stethoscope to his small chest, he watched me intensely. I flashed him a quick smile; he returned the favor and continue to observe every move I made. When I finished listening to his lungs, his curiosity could no longer be contained. He looked at me and said, “Can I listen to your heart now?” So for a moment we traded places; he became the doctor and me the patient. He was actually quite good at imitating me by quietly tuning in to hear my heart beat and prompting me for a deep breath by inhaling and nodding for me to follow suit. As he was finishing with my exam, his mother, beaming with pride, said, “He wants to be a doctor, and that’s what I want him to do too.” I chuckled thinking at once of my many sleepless nights, stress over exams, and the events with family and friends I had already missed in pursuit of this noble goal, and I’m just getting started.
As the little boy and his mom left the clinic, I began to think about the many overworked physicians I see or speak to, who started out like my young patient then slowly had the wonder and excitement sucked out of their physician experience. Some doctors have even responded to my questions for advice with, “I have no idea why anyone would want to go into medicine any more!” If I’m honest, sometimes I feel they may have a point. Then again, I have met physicians who still love the work they do. Over the weekend, I spent some time with a family friend who is an ER doctor. I asked if he got frustrated by all the “waste of time” consults he sees in the emergency department. Looking at me genuinely he said, “Every patient visit is an honor for me, I see them as a life I can touch.” I guess I shouldn’t have been taken back, but I didn’t expect that response from an ER doc with 30 years under his belt.
The question that begs to be asked is simple, "What’s the difference?" We have all met different versions of both doctors and one has to wonder what makes a doctor bitter, miserable, and look 10 years older than they should and the other still happy to examine or even reexamine a child with a cold because his pushy paranoid mom insists her son needs a prescription right now! Does it all come down to specialty, work hours, who gets paid more, or just personality?
This question is one that I am not qualified to answer, and is one that I will likely continue to answer throughout my career. However, I did find a great start in a comment Dr. Arlen Meyers posted in response to my post on Practicing Medicine In The Year 2050. You can read it there, but it’s worth a reprint.
For those who don’t know, Dr. Meyers is and ENT Surgeon, entrepreneur, author, educator, and CEO and President of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs.
Here's what I would say to students interested in medicine:
- Like anything else, follow your heart, not your parents.
- There are lots of ways to make a difference with an MD degree other than seeing patients.
- You will need to get your ticket punched (MD degree, residency) to do most of them.
- Don't tell the admissions officer at the medical school that you have no interest in practicing medicine.
- Hear all the people who are bitching. Just don't listen to them.
- Don't be a slave to debt if possible. Sacrifice and pay it off as soon as possible.
- Taking care of business is a part of taking care of patients. Start learning it as soon as possible on your own because you won't learn it in medical school.
These ten steps are not a prescription for an easy, turn-key career, but they will allow you to have a career on your own terms. I believe that these 10 things will make the difference between physicians who continue to stay engaged and passionate and those who become jaded and defeated.