If you read the wrong kind of comments in the online medical media – as I do, religiously – you might conclude that retiring doctors are glad to be leaving the sinking ship. These disembarking medicos proclaim they would discourage their child from ever boarding the leaky vessel. Why commit to years of study, long hours, frustrating paperwork, little respect and crappy pay?
After all, being a doctor is a tough gig these days. Especially if you stretch ‘these days’ to include one million days ago. Hippocrates noted in his opening line of the first ever book about the burden of being a doctor, “Life is short, and art long, opportunity fleeting, experimentations perilous, and judgement difficult”.
Life is less short since Hippocrates’ day, but the rest still rings true. Today’s graduates will face increasing bureaucracy and regulation. Recent reports highlight the threats of bullying from within the profession and of litigation from without—although I’d argue neither is escalating.
Would I encourage my child to do medicine? You bet I would, and here are five reasons why.
We help people.
I‘d never disparage someone slaving away frying burgers or selling insurance. Both can make the world a better place, especially if they care about their clients and colleagues.
But at the end of a year doctoring, you can pretty safely say that a whole lot of folk have been grateful for what you do. In 15-minute increments (on a tough day, 45-minute), I plug away at trying to ease my patients’ distress.
Sometimes I can offer a cure, sometimes thoughtful advice and occasionally I fail to achieve either. But on balance, people walk out better than they walk in.
We fix stuff. Actually fix stuff.
Those yearning for the good old days should read The Youngest Science, by Lewis Thomas. Thomas attended Harvard med school in 1933 and learned to, as he put it, “comfort the incurable”; watching compassionately over patients as they died from syphilis, tuberculosis and heart failure.
I’m as sceptical as anyone when it comes to curtailing medical hype, but you must admit, modern medicine spectacularly fixes a whole lot of problems. Sometimes by imaging, resecting and chemically pulverising a cancer, and at other times playing the long game, gently nurturing mind and body into a healthy old age.
Some doctors complain that Gen X seems happier to pay a homeopath than a GP. But remember: in the long run, people actually want to be fixed.
The job pays well and is secure.
Do you worry about oversupply, market instability and easier ways to earn a crust? Maybe—but name a university course where earning a reasonable living over a lifetime is substantially more secure.
Variety and flexibility.
Many of my patients who are labourers or office workers spend the first half of their career going wherever work takes them, and the second half hanging on to a tedious, repetitive job.
I could probably be parachuted into any part of Australia and I’d find some sort of gainful employment. If there wasn’t a GP job immediately going, I’d hitchhike to the closest regional centre to work as a locum, surgical assistant or medical educator.
With a bit of planning, I could consider medical admin (briefly), overseas aid work, a medical specialty or even the ultimate in alternative careers—medical writing.
Things might not be so rosy if I were a new graduate, or overseas-trained, or a female doctor about to start a family. But I’d still have more choices than an accountant.
We hang around motivated, independent thinkers.
Cynical as I am about the rare peer who wants little more than a flash car and European holidays, the fact is that most doctors I meet are good folk who think hard about their patients and have interesting opinions.
Rarely have I had a wasted conversation at a medical conference or an online doctors’ forum. I don’t always agree with the viewpoint, but enjoy the exchange.
If my child was to choose to study medicine, I bet his peers would be a delightful group of enthusiastic, motivated, intelligent young men and women; a fine bunch to accompany him through the next 40 years.
Which brings me to my conflict-of-interest statement: this article is not merely theoretical.
My middle son is about to begin studying medicine, and I’m delighted. No reason he shouldn’t enjoy his career as much as I have.