10 things you need to give up to become a doctor
Following a recent article elsewhere which generated an interesting discussion, I started thinking about the things one must give up on the road to becoming a doctor. It’s a long road, beginning with an initial decision, some early voluntary experiences, an application to university and some hard work trying to achieve the barely possible at GCSE and AS / A2.
But it doesn’t even end there. The hard work really only begins at medical school where long hours and repeated exams are considered normal and where you need your patients more than they need you.
There are plenty of things you have to give up along the way, here are my top 10:
1. Your desire to be wealthy
Very few people in medicine ever become hugely wealthy, at least not in Europe. If riches are what you desire there are many many easier ways of getting that involve alot less heartache, money and stress. If you want to be a millionnaire before you’re 30, my advice would be to avoid university altogether. Most doctors are in the profession for genuinely altruistic reasons as well as the satisfaction that comes from knowing that you have the skills and knowledge to save lives and apply these every single day as a routine part of your work.
2. Your desire to change the world
Equally you must, eventually, give up on the idea of becoming some sort of medical superhero who can solve the worlds medical problems one by one. Yes doctors can do some impressive things when applying their skills to the right situation. But remember that however good your intentions, you will not be able to overcome the problems caused by poverty, war, government neglect or abuse, or coorporate profiteering at the expense of the sick. That doesn’t mean you can’t try to help people afflicted by any of these, you’ll just find that you are usually too small to make any real systemic difference.
3. Your free weekends
It starts at medical school when the work starts to pile up, and weekends are sacrificed to meet deadlines and for exam revision. Once you start working as a junior doctor, you’ll find yourself scanning each new doctors rota to work out where your on-call weekends have landed and who can swop with you so that you can still go on that holiday or get married or whatever. There will be sunny weekends when your non-medic friends will be having a barbecue whilst you sweat it out on a ward seeing yet another gastrointestinal bleed wondering why you chose this path.
4. A good nights sleep
Gone are the days where doctors would be on call for 48 or 72 hours and then do a clinic for the boss before retiring to bed. However, modern working arrangements have brought into existence the ‘week of nights’ where you work 4 or 5 and sometimes 7 night shifts in a row.
As someone who has done these I can confirm that doing nights is pretty inhumane. The talk amongst doctors doing nights together often centres around changing specialty or leaving the profession. Don’t worry, it all gets forgotten once normal daytime duties are restored.
5. Your desire to avoid feeling like a fool
You will make mistakes from time to time in this job and your mistakes will all be potentially serious ones, simply because everything you do affects your patients’ lives directly.
Furthermore, there will be times when you have to withstand an onslaught from senior doctors who feel that teaching by humiliation is the only way forward. You will feel like an idiot at times and if the thought of that frightens you you should promptly pick a different profession.
6. Your desire to always put friends and family first
As a doctor your job usually takes priority and you simply cannot shirk your responsibilities simply because you have prior engagements of a personal nature. Over the years I’ve known many difficult situations including a colleague who had to turn down a role as best man for a close friend because nobody could swop his on-call weekend with him and the hospital refused to organise a locum to cover him.
Apart from sickness or bereavement, your first priority will be to your profession. Your friends and family may find that difficult to understand at first. They’ll come round to it with time, especially once they delete your number.
7. Your desire to please everyone.
Whether it’s your friends or family, as above, or your future patients you’d better get used to upsetting people from time to time. Telling your wife you need to postpone an evening engagement because you are still operating on a difficult case, or telling a patient you won’t be operating on them as they only have three months to live, are both likely to be met with upset. Each situation has it’s unique challenges and needs some communication skills, but the bottom line is that you will have times when you will have to make someone want to either hit you or cry in despair.
8. Your creativity
Not many people admit this but medicine takes people who are often very creative and turns them into workaholic, automatons who have little room left in their lives for creativity. If you want evidence for this, go to any dinner party that includes more than one doctor. Chief discussion topic will be work and medicine. That’s partly because anecdotes from doctoring are entertaining, but also because if the medics stray from this conversation topic, they will rapidly expose their banality and limited insights in other areas particularly all things creative.
Much of medicine does not allow much creativity in it’s day to day practice and the intensity of the work beats any desire for creative thinking right out of you before you even realise it’s happening.* Of course whilst accepting this fact you must fight this tendency and attempt to keep up your other interests, otherwise, I can guarantee medicine will invade everything you do.
*There are a few notable exceptions to this!
9. Your desire to stay in one place / live close to friends and family.
Want to do something competitive, like medicine? You have to realise that choosing your location is a luxury and you may have to follow your dream in a less than ideal location. Even after you graduate, having your heart set on one speciality is a sure way to geographical instability. Some people don’t mind this, but some with strong family ties or a mortgage, the need to move frequently is a pain.
I began to come to terms with this when I found that even the most obscure places have hospitals. Working in these places you’re just as likely to meet doctors who have also had to move from here from the other side of the country. It’s a great way to meet people but easy to lose touch once you move on.
10. Good health
You may not know it, but you’re joining a profession that has high rates of physical and mental illness as well as drug and alcohol misuse. Doctors are also less likely to seek help than other professions which all adds to a rather worrying picture.
Although ill health isn’t guaranteed in a medical profession you should realise the future risk now and take steps to formulate good lifestyle habits to minimise your risk factors. A good network of non-medical friends should also protect you from neglecting your own needs while you’re treating your patients.
That’s plenty to sacrifice just for a job isn’t it? However, I guess the reason you’re in medicine (or trying to get in) is that you’ve realised that medicine is not just a job, it’s a whole way of life, that’s difficult to let go of once you’ve decided to enter it, and these sacrifices are simply part of the deal.
Well, those are the 10 points I thought were worth including. If you have more I’d love to hear about them.
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