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Should I become a doctor?

Posted By Melissa Eirich, Wednesday, June 13, 2018


Should I become a doctor?

I recently spent 8 hours talking to middle school students about being a physician.  It was not what I expected.  This was not the first time I have spoken to middle school student about being a physician.  Specifically, being an Emergency Medicine physician.  Usually I get asked about gun shots and helicopters: the dramatic stuff they see on TV.  I was prepared for those questions.  I even had a slide show running in the background with real pictures of Emergency Department patients, staff running codes, gun shot and stab wounds, and the mandatory ambulance and helicopter pictures.  This group of students were coached to ask the really hard questions:  How much schooling does it take to become a doctor?  How much does medical school cost?  How much do doctors make? 

Great questions that I wish I had asked when I was in high school.  I am not saying that it would have changed my direction, but who knows?  I knew very little about being a doctor before applying to college.  It probably did not help that I applied to a 6-year combined B.S./M.D. program that sealed my educational fate.  No one ever sat me down and said, “Here are some career options in medicine.  Here are the pros and cons….”  Being well into my third decade in medicine, I have seen a lot of pros and cons in all fields of medicine but not a lot about educating students about them.

I was academic faculty at the University of Rochester for over 12 years.  We trained residents and medical students at all levels.  Yet, there were no lectures on the pros and cons of practicing medicine. By the time you got there, it was assumed you knew what you were in for.  Shame and disappointment was always associated with anyone leaving medical school or residency.  Changing from one residency to another was quite embarrassing and difficult.  Obviously, you were not up to the challenge of that field. 

But how would you know if you really did not know the deep secrets of the field?  Yes, we teach the necessary medical knowledge each field requires.  However, we do not teach students the real costs of medicine.  There is a lot of stress on the individual and their family.  Suicide rates for physicians are more than DOUBLE the rate of the general population.  Double.  The rate of alcohol and drug abuse for physicians is greater than the general public.  Why are the healers so in need of healing?

The answers are complex but part of the problem is preparation.  We are warned repeatedly in medical school just how stressful it is and most schools offer programs and counselors to help.  Once we get into residency, the pressure and hours are more intense and less help is available.  We keep thinking that once we get through residency, things will be so much better.  Well, that is often not the case.  The hours might be better – or might not.  They pay is better but now we have more responsibilities.  We are not adequately prepared for the new stresses of post-residency life.  We have spent 11-15 years in intense training with the false belief that a bigger paycheck will solve many of our problems.  Nope.  Now we must pay back all those student loans, which often add up to $400,000 - $500,000 once the interest is added.  Not to mention the exponentially increasing paperwork, regulations, and minimum requirements needed to practice medicine.  Oh, and taking care of patients…

My goal is to help prepare students and residents for some of these challenges.  This group can offer education, advice and support to other women in medicine.  Hopefully, this blog will start to address some of those issues.  I want to talk about the non-medical parts of medicine: the real and personal parts. 

Please post your questions and comments.  I will do my best to answer them. 




Tags:  biomedical  medical career  medicine  physician  science education; physics  STEM  students 

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Comments on this post...

Lynn L. Billman says...
Posted Thursday, June 14, 2018
Wonderful points in your discussion above. Being a physician must be among the most stressful career choices there can be. Thank you for your honesty about the issues. I hope other women will hear what you have to say as well.
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Dorothy Boorse says...
Posted Thursday, June 14, 2018
Hi Melissa,
I am on faculty of the Biology Dept at a small Christian liberal arts college. I have many many students who come in planning to be doctors and for whom that doesn't work out. Many change direction to go into RN, NP, PA, PT or other allied health fields. Some go into public health. Fortunately, we have a pre-health professions advisor who helps students see pros and cons of different medical directions. The process of changing their dream is however, often painful. I'm not sure what my question is, except how can we in higher ed better support you and other faculty in medical schools on this? Do you think a video series on medical careers and their realities would help? Is it just a function of not being exposed to resources already out there?
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Melissa Eirich says...
Posted Thursday, June 14, 2018
Good question. I am not aware of any video series but I will do some research to see if I find anything.

The medical field is filled with such driven people that I firmly believe failure is not seen as an option. Unfortunately, we incorrectly think we have failed at something when, in reality, we have just realized that it is not for us. I know because I still feel embarrassed that I did not complete my MPH program because I realized I didn't want to do research. It has been 14 years and it still stings!

I think we need to talk more about this in all aspects of academia. It is a combination of not fully understanding what you are committing to and feeling like you are alone in this.

Thank you so much for your comments. I will post any information I can find about this.
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