Before you aspire to take up medicine, ask yourself if you are best suited for the profession.

A patient is rushed into hospital just after a terrible road traffic accident. The relatives are in panic. A cool, good-looking doctor strides in confidently, swings into action and saves the patient. The room is spotless and clean, the nurses well-trained and know exactly what to do. Wait a minute — where in India is this? Well, this is a typical scene from one of the many programmes on health that are screened on TV — such as ER and Grey’s Anatomy. But is this the typical picture of healthcare? Can a young person choose to do medicine because she likes a TV serial?

Well, healthcare is a massive and immensely important field. Who has not come into contact with a hospital? Or not taken any medicines or vaccines? In fact, it is an essential field in every society across the world. The career options within it are many too. You no more have to restrict your goal to be a doctor if you want to be in healthcare. You can be a researcher in pharmaceuticals or an actuary in health insurance. You could work in a medical device manufacturing firm if you felt like combining your interests in machines and in health. The options are literally endless.

The challenges

For those entering clinical medicine, becoming doctors, nurses, etc,. which is what a majority of people want to get into, the pros and cons should be well understood. First, let’s look at some of the challenges. The requirement for being successful as a doctor is not the same as what is needed to get a medical college seat. To get a medical college seat, you need to secure high grades academically, and score well in an entrance test. To become a great surgeon, for example, the main characteristics needed are excellent hand-eye coordination, the ability to handle pressure, empathy, ability to communicate with the patient, etc. The requirements are completely different. Hence, the student should start by thinking about the skillset required for success and asking himself if he possesses them (or can acquire them). Second, clinical medicine is an area where the rewards are reaped later in life. Typically by the time doctors start working independently and have built their practice, they are in their mid-thirties. You will be looking at your school classmates in IT and business, whizzing around the world and possibly earning more money while you are still in training. Third, the flexibility in medicine is lower than in most professions. For example, you cannot decide to go and work in Europe or the U.S. for some time without taking many licensing exams and maybe even re-qualifying. In other fields, geographical mobility is much easier.

A noble profession

However, on the positive side, it is one of the most meaningful professions one can pursue. A great doctor will always be in demand and his services absolutely required. The profession can be intellectually challenging too — with doctors required to evaluate symptoms and decipher what is actually happening, like a detective. Also, the joy of seeing your patients getting better and thanking you for the service is something money cannot buy. From a monetary perspective, most doctors lead good lives economically and see a steady improvement in their financial status as they improve their practice.

A word of advice for those students interested in doing clinical medicine. Every student should at least spend a month shadowing a healthcare professional, and really understand the ground realities before they sign up. Go for emergencies in the middle of the night; see real surgeries; break bad news to patients etc. Entering healthcare without a full understanding of the field (as in any other field) can lead to huge disappointment. However, if you really love the work, this can be one of the most satisfying careers you can ever pursue.

The writer is a director, Pathways Program.