Would You Be Happy as a Doctor?

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In some surveys, over 50% of physicians would not choose medicine again, nor would they recommend the profession to their children. Doctors are becoming increasingly disillusioned with medicine and burnout rates are at epidemic levels. Here’s how you can know whether you’ll be happy or miserable as a future doctor.

 

1 | You Enjoy a Good Challenge

There are two types of people in this world: those that love the rush and reward from facing and overcoming a challenge, and those who are easily discouraged, stressed, or bitter of the obstacles that stand in their way.

The path to becoming a physician is arduous. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and one riddled with obstacles and challenges along the way. If you find yourself energized or eager to overcome obstacles, you’ll be much happier as a physician.

There are multiple flavors of challenges along the way. Most obviously, the academic rigors are immense, starting as a pre-med with cutthroat competition, then to medical school with tremendous volumes of information, and finally residency with long hours and increased responsibility. At each stage, there are additional challenges such as the MCAT, USMLE, clinical rotations, away rotations, difficult colleagues, gunners, and more.

It’s common for aspiring physicians to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel — what will it be like to be an attending physician? Don’t forget that during the prime of your life, for all of your twenties and until your early to mid thirties, you’ll be training while your non-physician friends are enjoying a relatively more relaxed and free life.

But even as an attending physician, you better enjoy a good challenge. Medicine is a mental puzzle, providing intellectual stimulation and it’s best suited to those with an inquisitive mind. If you want to help patients with less intellectual stimulation, another healthcare profession may suit you better, like nursing. Even in the operating room, as a surgeon, you’ll be constantly working with the technical challenge of fine motor control, particularly if you go into something highly meticulous like plastic surgery.

If you’re able to find pleasure and the silver lining to the expected and unexpected challenges that arise in your life, you’ll be much happier as a doctor.

 

2 | You’re Process- vs. Outcome-Oriented

For similar reasons, being process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented will serve you well as a future physician. This manifests in two main ways.

Have you ever realized that when you’re constantly focused on how long it takes until you reach your destination, the trip seems much longer? And when you forget about time, it seems to fly by. Because medical training is a marathon, focusing on the outcome of being a physician, rather than the process, will only make the actual training seem that much longer.

Similarly, being too outcome-oriented is detrimental in patient care situations. Despite the marvels of modern medicine, there are often times when we cannot save a patient or the outcome is far from what anyone wants. In certain specialties, such as neurosurgery or oncology, being outcome-oriented can be disastrous, as average outcomes in these fields tend to be poor. There will be many times when you follow every best practice by the book, but still, the results are not what you or the patient wanted. This doesn’t necessarily mean you did anything wrong or that you should do it differently next time — sometimes there are simply factors outside of your control.

By learning to love the process, the details and mishaps in the day to day become less relevant. You’ll cherish the opportunities to learn, how challenges and setbacks stimulate growth and will begin to appreciate the small victories.

 

3 | You’re Not Attached to Money for Self-Worth

Most people hear of the large salaries that most physicians pull in and come to the erroneous conclusion that physicians are tremendously wealthy. Truth is, being a doctor is not nearly as lucrative as most people think.

In my years of training, I’ve spoken with dozens of attending physicians about what it means to be an attending, how their expectations compared to reality, and what surprised them most about life as a fully trained doctor. One of the more common themes I see is attending physicians with stress, negative associations, or misalignment of expectations with regards to finances.

One plastic surgeon told me that growing up, he came from a financially disadvantaged background. Therefore, making money and having financial security was important to him. He went on to become a plastic surgeon and thought he’d make the big bucks and live a lavish life. After 4 years of college, another 4 years of medical school, followed by 6 years of plastic surgery residency, and then 2 years of fellowship to specialize in aesthetics and microsurgery, he was in his mid-30s. He had no savings, student loans had ballooned with interest, and now he was building a family with his wife and his second child on the way. Upon finishing his training, he was making $400,000 per year, but after taxes, student loan payments, saving for retirement, the mortgage for his new home, and the added expenses of starting and supporting a family of four, he still felt the financial strain he worked so hard to avoid.

If you’re a broke student reading this, just like I was not too long ago, you may scoff at this and think “how can someone making 400k not feel super-wealthy!?” Wealth doesn’t come from a high income, but rather from having assets. That means money saved or investments, not how much you pull in each year. Training to be a physician means that while wealth accumulation is accelerated after you finish training, the opportunity cost is massive and takes several years to make up for. Did this plastic surgeon eventually end up in a great financial position? Yes, after diligently saving, living below his means, and paying off debt for several years, but now he’s in his late 40’s.

Most physicians lead an upper-middle-class lifestyle, which is not nearly as lavish as you may think. The type of money doctors make doesn’t lead to extravagant homes and cars, but rather comfort and security. You’ll make enough to save for retirement, to have a comfortable home, and to hopefully not have to stress about money. But apart from the few outliers, you won’t be balling out with a new Pagani every year.

 

4 | You Enjoy Helping Others

Perhaps the most overused cliché amongst pre-meds during their medical school interviews is stating that they want to become a doctor to help others. While stating this as a primary reason to become a doctor would likely prove detrimental to your medical school application, there is some truth there.

I despise the self-righteousness and moral high ground that is assumed or taken when people speak about how much pleasure they derive from helping others. Let’s put that nonsense aside. This isn’t about whether or not you’re a good person, or how lucky we are to have you grace us with your presence.

If we remove all this morality and judgment from helping others and even focus on purely selfish motives, it becomes apparent that the pursuit and desire to bring joy and be of service to others actually makes you feel better.

The pleasure and joy one derives from helping another is almost universal, but there are people who are not able to tap into this satisfaction in the healthcare setting due to other factors. For example, a strongly cynical outlook, being easily annoyed, or not being a team player are just a few factors that can obstruct you from finding joy here. To thrive as a physician, finding pleasure in being of service to patients is essential.

 

5 | You’re Resilient

The year is 2020, and the candy-ass climate is reaching new heights. Having an ounce of resilience or not adopting a victim-mentality makes you the outlier.

With most things in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle and nuance is key. On one end of the spectrum, burnout is a systemic issue, not an individual one. Medical students and residents don’t need more mandatory wellness lectures. Those actually just make the problem worse. What we need is a systemic overhaul of medicine and medical training whereby trainees aren’t abused or used as cheap labor.

On the other end of the spectrum, personal responsibility and resilience are necessary to not only survive, but thrive as a future doctor. Recently on Reddit, I came across a medical student who was shaken up from an attending commenting that his tie didn’t match his shirt. If you’re that easily offended, good luck to you in life, let alone in medicine. Pick up Meditations by Marcus Aurelius or read my post on stoicism for students so you can face the inevitable challenges empowered, not as a victim. Take responsibility for every challenge life throws your way. Responsibility doesn’t equate to fault, but responsibility allows you to take action and do something about the challenges you face, rather than just cowering in a corner complaining about them.

Is it my fault that family genetics predisposed me to develop Crohn’s colitis? Is it my fault that a driver ran a red light and t-boned our car? Obviously not in both instances, but both became my responsibility, and by taking responsibility, I was able to do something about it.

 

If you meet these 5 criteria, congratulations! Chances are you’ll be quite happy as a future doctor. Out of the 5 factors, how many do you personally resonate with? Let us know with a comment down below.

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