What will be your legacy as a physician?

by Francine Gaillour, MD

I’ve  heard some physicians wonder out loud if they’re career has been  “wasted” – either because they were on a path that wasn’t a good fit, or  they spent years focusing on accumulating and worrying, rather than on contributing and enjoying.  The question is one of personal value:  Am I measuring up? And by whose metrics?

How do you measure the value of your physician career?  Dollars earned?  Lives saved? Honors attained?  Families grateful?

From  my work with physicians, I’ve learned that we all want to feel our career has mattered.  It’s temping—and often disastrous—to compare our lives to others in order to guage whether we’re on track.

One of my clients was feeling conflicted because even though his RBRVs were at the top quartile and he easily out-produced his colleagues, he was feeling dissatisfied with his life.  He joked about the epitaph that  would go on his gravestone:  “Loving Husband and Father, Top 25% in Annual Billings and Revenue.”

Whether  you are in clinical practice, academics, or healthcare business, here is another vantage point from which to examine your career value: your legacy as a healer.

Here is my definition of legacy: The value you create as a healer, or said in a different way, your contribution to healing the world.

Let’s delve deeper and examine the four core contributions that could be your legacy as a healer.  Read through each of the four contributions below and see if there is one core contribution that you might already be making.  If you aren’t already on a path to leaving a legacy as a healer, I suggest that you choose one of the core Ccontributions and begin to direct your energy there.

Four core contributions that could be your legacy

1. Your reputation. Could it be so simple that just having a stellar reputation for ethical behavior, kindness and fair-handedness is enough of a legacy?   Absolutely!

Just  look around you and see that how our culture and society is saturated with unsavory characters, speech and images.  As a physician, you are still placed “on a pedestal” by many people – not so much to admire, but to model moral and ethical standards of behavior.

Recently  I spoke on the topic of personal leadership to a large medical association, and afterwards one of the older physicians came up to me and asked: “Do you think physicians care anymore about virtue and ethics?  Do they see that as important?”

Patients  and colleagues definitely notice and get quite upset when a physician “acts out” or exhibits poor bedside manner. Your core contribution as a healer can be enormous if would you uphold a standard of behavior that reinforces civility and respect.  Will this be your legacy?

2. Your trailblazing. Have you been the “first” to pioneer a new procedure or method?  You don’t have to be the inventor or creator (although that counts as a trailblazer’s core contribution), but it does take a trailblazing physician to lead groups into new waters, such as the incorporation of integrative medicine or the adoption of electronic medical records.

It could be your trailblazing contribution to heal the world will manifest  by tackling a community health project that no one else wants to address.

As a leader, your core contribution as a trailblazer could be the first implementation of a code of conduct for your hospital, or the first system-wide implementation of clinical guidelines.

Breaking new ground, whether with technology or with a method, also entails quashing taboos that hold people back, and requires a steady, deliberate  and untiring effort.   A trailblazing core contributor leaves a new system for better health and wellbeing.  Will this be your legacy?

3. Your body of work. If you have written multiple articles or books, as a researcher or pundit, or you’ve collected artifacts that fill a gap in historical understanding—your work over the years will be a resource for generations to come.  Your body of work might be the dozens of surgical cases you’ve done in your subspecialty, with each one adding knowledge to the field and improving care for hundreds across the world.

But  your core contribution doesn’t have to be clinical, scientific or purely academic.  Consider a body of work that is personal to your family.

For the past several years I have been conducting extensive research on my mother’s genealogy (we’ve traced her ancestors to Spain as far back as 1300′s).  While I’ve enjoyed the research, I had been dragging my feet documenting everything I’ve uncovered, thinking, “I’m too busy.”  But recently I’ve come to realize that my own core contribution will be the written account of what Ive learned.  My body of research in the form of a book and website will be a gift to the dozens of extended family members I have in New Mexico, plus a source of information and answers for generations to come. Will a body of work be your legacy?

4. Your wise guidance. Reflect for a moment on your years of medical training or practice and those times when you were at a crossroads.  Who was it that gave you a timely word of encouragement, or an insightful piece of advice, or a firm talking to — guidance that served as a major course correction in your life?

Wise guidance delivered to someone with potential can have long-reaching effects. Are you someone who routinely inspires your patients to stop smoking or start eating well?  Are you an attending physician who makes it a point to identify the unique strength of residents and fellows to help them develop their career?  Are you a parent who can look beyond your own ambitions for your kids, and instead helped them develop their natural gifts and find their own way?

To  dish out “advice” is as easy as eating popcorn, but to serve as wise counsel takes learning, practice and discipline.   If you’ve had a few people tell you how much your input or teaching impacted their life, then your core contribution is already manifesting.   Will this be your legacy?

Now, don’t be a hyper-achieving doctor and think you have to contribute in all four dimensions.  That will probably cause you to feel inadequate and defeats the purpose of this exploration.   We can’t all hit a grand slam, but all of us can succeed with one core contribution.  And that’s all it takes to heal the world.

Francine Gaillour is an internal medicine physician and the executive director of the Physician Coaching Institute.  She blogs at

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