Health care is a tough job to work in — whether you are a doctor, nurse or any other professional. We are dealing with matters of life and death, our patients expect (and deserve) the best from us, and we always have a hundred-and-one things to do at the frontlines of medicine. I remember reading somewhere when I was a teenager that a career in medicine would be a “mentally, physically, and emotionally draining job.” All these years later, I can see how true that statement was. At a time when statistics show soaring rates of job dissatisfaction and burnout among health care professionals — it’s actually the barriers that are placed in front of us, while already doing a difficult and demanding job — that are tipping so many clinicians over the edge. (I encourage everyone to watch Dr. Zubin Damania’s viral video calling this “moral injury.”)
Whether it’s burdensome and clunky electronic medical records (probably the number one reason for physician job frustration currently), other excessive bureaucracy and regulatory requirements, insurance companies, or a difficult relationship with administration — there are plenty of reasons for job dissatisfaction. Obviously, I come from the physician perspective, but have seen how many of the same issues extend to the nursing profession too.
It’s time to face facts: If you work as a full-time clinical employee in health care right now, it’s almost impossible to be happy in your job over the long term. Period. In the United States, it’s for the reasons outlined above. I grew up and went to medical school in the United Kingdom, and morale among physicians is actually far worse over there, albeit for entirely different reasons related to centralized government control and doctors being given a very bad deal over the last several years. I wish I could say differently, and I’m not a pessimistic person by nature, but the core reason for why you will be unhappy with your job is that far too many obstacles are placed between the health care professional and delivering the patient care they want to — and what they have been trained to do. Autonomy and a certain sense of control have been completely lost. Physicians, nurses, and all other professionals went into their respective careers typically for idealistic reasons — and they find within a couple of years after graduating that things are not what they expected. They have amazing skills that they want to bring to the world, but can’t (in the case of doctors, if over 80 percent of your day is spent mindlessly clicking away on a computer, it’s easy to see why).
Organizations can try to dress things up, seduce you with a seemingly good package and benefits, impress you with their shiny corporate logo and newly designed hospital. But at the end of the day, it’s like lipstick on a pig. Sorry, but it is. And our health care system is the pig. What’s more, every CEO, administrator, physician, nurse — and not least of all patient, knows it is a complete mess — and the frontlines will naturally bear the brunt of it.
As for me personally, after some time experimenting and working up and down the East Coast, I am finally at a place where I feel happy with my clinical work balance. I chose to break away from full-time employment, create my own schedule with a mix of inpatient and outpatient work by independently contracting, and balance this with non-clinical and entrepreneurial activities. Unfortunately, many physicians are choosing to leave clinical medicine entirely, either by going an administrative route or by changing careers. That’s something I never want to do. And not something that the country, or our patients, need right now. I love patient care, take pride in my skills as a doctor, and want to advocate for improving the system from the frontlines. I have no intention of ever leaving that, no matter where any of my other non-clinical ventures take me.
And my message to all physicians and other professionals who I hear complaining about their jobs and the path their careers have taken: Life is oh too short. Certainly too short to waste any time with work that you no longer enjoy. You are way too smart, have worked way too hard, and have a much-needed skill set. Undoubtedly if you’re unhappy at work, you will also bring that home with you too. Get cracking trying to find an alternative arrangement that suits your skills, goals, and ambitions, whatever they may be. Experiment, see what’s out there, network, and be ruthless in seeking the career happiness you deserve. This is America, and you have opportunities right in front of you most people in the world could only dream of.
I’m always a little shocked and somewhat saddened when I hear about doctors who have been stuck for years in a sub-optimal situation and a job that they don’t enjoy any more. I wouldn’t stick any longer than a few months max (enough to hand in my resignation) if I ever felt like a job wasn’t what I expected or making me miserable. Granted, I know many people have family commitments, big mortgages, and other things that mean they cannot just up and leave (I have some of those too). However, I fail to believe that there is not a way out if you find yourself in an unhappy place, and are savvy enough. Imagine this too: spending years of your working career dissatisfied, which may only be 30 years or so at the most, is just such a waste of your life. Especially if it’s anything other than right at the end of your career, when you are still in your prime.
There are so many options for anyone smart enough to work in medicine in the first place. And I hope whatever you choose or whatever background specialty you come from, you will not leave the frontlines of health care.
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author, and an independent health care experience and communication consultant. He is co-founder, DocsDox.
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