03 February 2008

What do you want from a career in medicine?

I am often asked why I decided to pursue a career in medicine; starting at a later age and with many demands both mentally and physically. Quite simply, I knew that I would enjoy those mental and physical demands because I love working with my patients to identify and help solve their health problems. When a patient walks into your clinic, office or you encounter them in the hospital, the most amazing relationship develops that you will ever experience. A person walks into your life and puts their health and trust into your hands. This trust means that you give your best knowledge in terms of figuring out their needs and meeting them.

Too many people will confuse what they see on the telly (House, Dr. Kildare, Gray’s Anatomy,Ben Casey, Scrubs, ER) with what is the actual reality of being a physician. There is little “glamor” in this job but there is loads of personal satisfaction in winning those hundreds of little “victories” that you will win over the course of a day. There is also the knowledge that if the health care system continues along the road that it has taken, you are going to make less money for every day that you work in the practice of medicine. The question that you need to ask is “am I willing to work this hard for this career?” If you can answer this in the affirmative no matter what the future holds, then likely you will have a satisfying career in medicine.

In no other career are you asked to be out of the work force for essentially 8 years just to be able to enter a job where you will be making less than minimum wage with an average educational debt of more than $150K. In no other career is your income totally dependent on the policies and regulations of private industry, government regulatory agencies, Congress and state governments. You have no control over what reimbursement will be for your services (those reimbursements have been cut every year in the name of holding down costs) while your costs of maintaining your practice have continued to increase dramatically.

Primary care (Internal Medicine, Family Medicine, Pediatrics and OB-GYN) have seen their ranks shrink in popularity among graduates of American medical schools for a number of reasons not the least of which is the extremely high costs of medical education, rising interest rates on loans and decreased pay. Those people who are yet to enter medical school and those who are yet to graduate face even more challenges in terms of just being able to make a living (purchase a house, pay off educational loans, open a practice). If you are not yet in medicine/medical school, you are likely (unless you enter the armed forces) not going to be able to afford to enter primary care because of past educational expenses. Along with that, add the fact that if you are not a very strong performer in medical school, you won’t be eligible for residency in one of the “money” specialties and thus, you will be scrambling to make a living even if you are able to get into medical school.

The American Medical Association has been extremely slow to organize and speak for the needs of the young physician. Most of the people (and I am thankful for their efforts) that are able to lobby, have been established physicians in specialties such as opthalmology who can afford to take a day away from practice because their loans are paid off and their homes are purchased and their children have their college education paid for. They have little in common with the newly minted physician who has a young family, a 10-year-old car from residency and a $2,000 a month loan payment in addition to rent (mortgage if they are lucky)and office overhead expenses. I remember my cousin, who is a neurosurgeon state back in the early 1990s that she had to make a minimum of $10,000 per week in order to keep her office door open. I am sure that number has increased (increased malpractice costs and office costs) while her payments have been decreasing. In the face of this, why would anyone want to enter this career? How would anyone afford to enter this career?

The answer to these questions are not easy but they are expensive both in time and energy. The truth of the matter is that you had better know as much about the day-to-day practice of medicine before you enter your pre-med curriculum because by the time you have finished your first two years of medical school, you have racked up too much debt to be able to do anything else. Little is taught about practice management/investment/finance either in medical school or residency. Medical school prepares you for residency and residency prepares you for practice.
Some people want residency programs to include more about practice management, marketing and finance but along came the 80-hour work week restrictions and thus, most residency programs are still scrambling to make sure that they can include all of the experiences that residents need to learn just to practice let alone add to what they need. The business of medicine is very complicated and growing more complicated daily with policy changes at both the federal and state level. It takes many hours to keep up and keep yourself informed.

This gets back to what do you want from a career in medicine? Financial/job security isn’t out there anymore. Definitely respect and admiration are not out there anymore. Hard work, long hours of study and personal and financial sacrifice are definitely out there and ahead. i caution anyone to look long and hard at this career because it’s not easy and there is no relief on the horizon. Be very, very sure that you have a realistic idea of what day-to-day life is like for physicians who are coming out today and not what you see on the telly. None of those shows are remotely close.