Editor’s Note: Updated June 2019
Sometimes, common beliefs about what it’s like working as a physician are true — long hours, lost sleep, and high pressure, just to name a few. Other times, they’re completely wrong: The people who think all doctors are rich, for instance, have never stared down a pile of medical school student loan bills. Either way, the only way you’ll truly find out how it is to be a physician is to become one.
Before you do that, here are five thoughts to consider as you work your way toward becoming a doctor.
Five Thoughts to Consider as You Work Toward Becoming a Doctor
1. The Shortage of Physicians Will Affect Your Career
There’s a good chance the ever-growing U.S. physician shortage has already had some effect on your early or upcoming professional life. But, the physician shortage as we know it may not actually exist.
Many leading minds are quick to blame the lack of medical school subsidies and local talent as the cause of the current physician shortage. While this may be true, there is growing support for the theory that the shortage wasn’t caused by an inadequate amount of healthcare providers, but is instead the result of an inefficient healthcare system ineffectively using the providers available.
Whether you believe it is a physician shortage or a failing of our healthcare system, there is no doubt that it will play some part in your professional life. It may have a positive effect, creating more job opportunities and a competitive staffing market. Or, it may be less than great, exhausting overworked physicians with never-ending patient loads.
Whatever the situation, rest assured you will feel the effects.
2. People Are Paying More Attention to Burnout
With almost half of all physicians showing symptoms of burnout and research suggesting that young doctors are particularly prone to it, preventing burnout is at the forefront of medical professionals’ minds. If you don’t start developing the skills, attitude, and internal defenses to combat burnout quickly, becoming a doctor could prove difficult.
There is a silver lining, however. Because burnout is a relatively new concept — the term was only coined and given serious study starting in the 1970s — research on and solutions for avoiding it are more prominent and useful than ever before. This at least puts young physicians and others struggling with burnout in better hands than any class of physicians that came before. And, while some aspects of a career in healthcare will inherently cause some degree of burnout, several innovative techniques to fight it are being studied. New care delivery methods, such as telehealth, have shown promise in helping doctors and other providers avoid burnout.
Feeling burned out? Check out these tips from ZDoggMD.
3. The Best Doctors Take Care of Themselves
You’ve probably had the take-care-of-yourself mantra preached to you from the first day of medical school, but it bears repeating all the same. Think of self-care as preventive care: Doctors who maintain personal well-being are less prone to burnout, compassion fatigue, and other problems that often cause poor performance and less-than-stellar professional decision-making.
As someone who has been trained to make people better, putting your own health in front of other’s well-being may run against every instinct you have. But don’t be afraid to say no, even if you’re afraid it will make you look like a jerk. Take a personal day to sleep in, get a massage, and treat yourself instead of catching up on errands and chores. Maybe take up the drums or join a running club. Finally, consider a career in locum tenens, where you can make your own hours.
Do whatever makes you happy, because a happy physician is a physician who cares enough to perform well.
4. Medical School and Residency Aren’t the Sum of All Knowledge
Physicians are smart people, and smart people understand that learning doesn’t stop once you leave school. The sheer amount of on-the-job learning you do as a newly minted, degree-laden physician may shock you. In fact, many doctors will tell you that the first year out of school and residency — the first time that you are able to fully practice with minimal supervision — is one of the steepest learning curves a young physician will encounter.
The first year isn’t just about turning theory into practice. It’s also a time when physicians tend to reflect back on the decisions they made to get them to where they are. If medical school is a TV spot for a movie, residency is the full theatrical trailer; your first year out, on the other hand, is the whole show. You can get all the education and training in the world, but nothing will prepare you for working on a hospital floor like actually doing it.
5. Professional and Residency Relationships Are Not the Same Thing
“During residency, your work relationships are fleeting. When you enter practice, they immediately become long term.”
These 15 words say a novel’s worth about interpersonal relationships in healthcare. As a physician, your ability to manage the needs, wants, quirks, and even egos of an endless list of people (e.g., colleagues, subordinates, superiors, patients, their families, etc.) will directly affect your ability to perform and enjoy performing your job — and it’s something that’s only learned on the job.
You don’t need to be a social butterfly or exam-room chameleon to be an effective physician, though. Be bigger than hospital politics and treat everyone with respect, even when they don’t extend the same courtesy to you. And when the inevitable stress of working in the medical field turns molehills into mountains, take a step back and remember that taking care of yourself is in you and your patients’ best interest.