From a calling to a job… and maybe back to a calling
Have we come full circle?
I have written in the past about how the practice of medicine in my lifetime has gone from a calling to a profession to a job. When I was a medical student, most of us felt that becoming a physician was truly a calling. We held our future responsibilities up to a higher standard. Unpleasant aspects of the job like long hours, on-call responsibilities, 24-7 patient care, etc., were simply considered part of the price of admission. There was a pervasive mindset amongst physicians that we were meant to pursue medicine, and that the Hippocratic Oath was bigger than any of us. What a noble concept.
But as the years went by, many of us began feeling that the perception of the practice of medicine was eroding and instead of being a calling, it was now becoming a profession. The work would be long and hard, like any other profession. One’s career as a physician would involve difficult and challenging work that would require persistence and dedication, but it would no longer be considered a calling. There was no bigger purpose. The practice of medicine would join the ranks of other demanding professions with the advantages of reasonable benefits and perks.
As time passed, I perceived it getting even more basic. The practice of medicine was further denigrated to that of a job. Physicians, especially the younger ones out of residency, now looked at the practice of medicine as simply a task to do. Issues such as on-call and others were not obligatory, but rather chores for which one should be additionally compensated. The physician would clock-in and clock-out like any other worker.
What a professional disappointment for me. What an unfortunate legacy in such an otherwise esteemed field. What a sad thing to contemplate at the senior time of my career. I must say I was depressed….
Until I had the opportunity to talk with some medical residents this week in the physician’s lounge of a hospital in which I was consulting. I always enjoy talking with the new physicians. I love to hear about how they think and how they perceive the future practice of medicine. I reminisced with them about my own experiences during that time, and how optimistic I was about the future of medicine. Now, in the presence of these residents, I bought up my concern that the practice of medicine has now simply become a job. I recounted my story to them and talked about how sorry I was that the field was now so trivialized. Admittedly, I even might have been a bit condescending. I was curious as to how they would respond.
I was totally unprepared for their response.
One of the residents looked at me somewhat perplexed and said, “of course the practice of medicine is a calling for me”. He told me that young physicians were NOT looking at the opportunity for big incomes or big status. They knew that the future practice of medicine would not likely offer those perks. Another resident told me that if you want to make big money, go into business or go into other Wall Street endeavors. If you simply wanted prestige, choose another career. These young physicians have already baked those realities into their decisions, and decided to pursue a medical career despite them. Truly it is still a calling to them or they would have pursued more lucrative or more prestigious careers. They wanted to be physicians and practice the art and science of medicine. They wanted to heal the sick and comfort the afflicted.
Boy, I got schooled.
I left the conversation to go to my meeting. I now had a lot to think about. I must admit I was feeling a little bit guilty that maybe what I considered a calling in my day could have even been a rationalization of the good income and status we knew we would have once we became physicians. Could we have had it all wrong?
Or perhaps we have indeed come full circle. Perhaps again the decision to become a physician could be considered a calling again. Maybe there is hope that the practice of medicine is indeed bigger than any of us.
I smiled. Maybe the youth of America had rekindled the notion that becoming a physician was truly a calling. Maybe our future will be comprised of devoted physicians who love their field, and who truly put their position at a higher standard. Caring for patients will continue to be a privilege and a virtue.
Thank you, my young colleagues, thanks for your counsel. Thanks for your wisdom.
Thanks for keeping me young.
Our future is in good hands!