An honest look at the medical profession.
As a young person with your sights fiercely trained on bagging a seat at one of the nation’s prestigious medical colleges, the questions farthest from your mind would be the ones I shall put to you today.
Are you a caring person?
Are you a good listener?
Can you put yourself in another’s shoes and empathise with them? Would you be able to act on that empathy, not just sporadically but day after day after day?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, I would suggest that you rethink your decision to continue along this path. You might ace your exams and get admission to a clutch of top notch medical colleges, but a decade down the line, having burnt yourself at both ends to get through medical college and postgraduation, you would wonder if this was really the profession best suited to your personality and interests.
Let me start by debunking some commonly held myths.
Myth 1: All you need to become a good doctor are degrees — loads of them.
Of course you need to be competent in your field of expertise, and a degree is a means to that end. But all the degrees in the world cannot teach you how to be the kind of doctor your patients would want to come back to, again and again. That comes from being a good human being. A lot of your work will involve spending time with people who are seriously ill — some of whom you will be able to help, while a significant proportion will fall into that shadowy domain where medical science has nothing to offer. Some patients may not have the money to continue treatment, some may have an incurable disease, some have simply had enough and want you to let them be. How will you handle them? Recite a few choice paragraphs from your favourite medical textbook? Shout, argue, swear?
In truth, all you can do is listen — listen to their problems, hold their hand, and then accept whatever decision they may choose to make.
So if you’re aspiring to be a doctor, cultivate an interest in people around you. Keep your eyes and ears open, spend time with children and the elderly, understand and observe the society you live in. A good doctor is always rooted in reality — he/she understands how to deal with the rich, the poor, the illiterate, the Page 3 diva, the crotchety grandma, the difficult teenager.
In a world that measures success by how big your office is, how fat your bank balance and where you took your last vacation, this may sound overly naïve and idealistic — but if you were a patient, would you rather prefer a doctor who had all the right answers but no time for you, or someone who was equally competent but also took time to get to know you, explain the nature of your disease and go over your treatment options without glancing at his Omega watch every 30 seconds?
Myth 2: My parents are successful doctors, therefore I must be a doctor too.
If you asked a batch of freshly recruited medical students why they took up medicine, quite a few would say they did so because their parents are doctors or wanted them to become doctors. There may be a hospital or nursing home they are expected to run once they graduate, and for many, that is often the deal clincher. Good genes may be a compelling argument in favour of this profession, but the fact that your parents are great doctors does not guarantee that you might become one too.
Despite your parents’ karma you would have to work hard to achieve greatness, and if you lack the temperament or the passion for the profession, you may end up an unhappy person who does his/her work cursorily, and at great risk to the lives of your patients.
Medicine assures me a fat bank balance.
Some take up medicine thinking it will fast track them towards financial security. Medicine is not just any job — this is a profession where one wrong step can mean irreparable damage to the patient and your reputation. If you are both competent and compassionate, money will automatically follow, but if you make the pursuit of money your single-minded aim, you will often place the patient’s interests secondary to your own, and that is when mistakes happen.
Myth 4: Once I become a doctor, I can stop studying.
Ten years ago, for the average Indian patient the doctor was next only to God. Today, every second patient will come to you with a Google/Wikipedia search result for their symptoms and will take a second opinion if they feel you have been less than impressive. No matter how many degrees you have and how long you have been practising, you must never stop learning.
Myth 5: Once I become a doctor, I can have a cushy life.
Sickness is indifferent to weekends or holidays. Patients will meet you in the marketplace and ask you what to do about a nagging headache; if you’re a surgeon trying to enjoy a quiet New Year’s eve, there will always be someone silly enough to get drunk and crash their car, prompting an urgent call from the hospital for you to rush to the theatre and fix them up.
But if you love your work, as most doctors do, there is no profession that affords you the kind of instant gratification medicine does. The look of gratitude and respect in the eyes of a patient who gets well, money cannot buy.
The writer is Asst. Prof, Dept. of Nephrology, CMC Hospital, Vellore.