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Career Counselor? Thoughts On Becoming A Doctor

As a physician, I’ve had several people ask my “honest” opinion of their plans to become a doctor. I know what my response is to this question, but I wonder what others in my profession would answer. Would your response depend, in large part, on who’s doing the asking — could you answer your own child as you would someone you just met? Be careful, your answer to this question, if honestly given, might shine an unsettling light on your own feelings about your current career choice.

Last week I spoke with a college junior working to fulfill her lifelong plans to become a physician. She told me about a recent conversation with her own doctor where she shared her plans to go to medical school and he’d tried to dissuade her. She couldn’t recall a single cogent reason given for avoiding the medical profession, yet it appeared to me that his odium had negatively imprinted her image of the medical profession, which is a shame. At this time more than ever, we –- doctors and patients alike — need to encourage the most talented of our youth to join the medical profession.

I fear that conversations like the one described above take place on a daily basis given the angry climate in medicine today. Almost 30 years ago, I shared my plans to become a physician with my family doctor and received a surprising rebuttal of the value of my dreams as well. I wish that I could say her story had brought this memory up from a repressed corner within my mind, but the truth is that I have often thought of his response since completing my residency.

I recall sitting on the edge of his examination table, my visit nearing its end, when I surprised myself by blurting out: “I want to be a doctor, too.” The paper crinkled loudly beneath me as I shifted my weight nervously under his now penetrating and dubious gaze. I doubt he could have looked upon me with more revulsion than if I had suddenly grown a third eye. “You don’t want to do that,” he scoffed. “There’s no money in it, anymore. What you should do is join the Marines — that’ll toughen you up.”

The older I get the more confusing I find his response, and I will never forget the hypocrisy I observed on seeing his Mercedes parked in a spot marked “Doctor” as I walked out of his office that day. I expect, like me, that you will be asked by some aspiring student for your thoughts on becoming a doctor. Would you be able to recommend a career in medicine? If not, then I hope you can find a way to answer this question that will educate a potential student on the problems they will face from outside influences without discouraging them from fulfilling their dreams.

I have to believe that we in the medical profession, today, still have the opportunity to improve modern medicine and make it a rewarding career choice for following generations. Although we as PCPs may have given up control of the purse strings to government and the insurance industry, I know that none of us can be forced to surrender our creativity or passion for medicine — at least without a fight.

I will continue to recruit our future colleagues and recommend medicine as a career choice. Furthermore, after thinking about this question I see a deeper lesson in all of this that I intend to share with my children. If you’re doing something you’re not proud of, then either get out or try to change it.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Steve Simmons, M.D.

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