Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of assisting more than 2,000 distressed physicians – some with burnout, others with “rough edges,” still others with psychiatric conditions or misuse of drugs and alcohol. Some of these doctors were still functioning well; others had lost their licenses and their livelihoods, hoping against hope that they would somehow be able to return to medicine. Linking all these physicians is a shared passion for being of service to others. That is the calling of a healer. That is our good fortune. That is our True North – our unique opportunity to help others.
Being helpful to patients delights physicians. It is a uniquely personal peak experience to combine knowledge, words and actions, just so, and alleviate the pain and suffering of a fellow being. These moments of deep job satisfaction transcend and temper the mundane technological and commercial intrusions that distract us from our mission to heal and provide succor, the life’s blood of our medical profession.
Our purpose is to care for others, effectively and with compassion. Each role we take on, each position, each medical team we join, and every organization with which we affiliate – we must consider how these choices resonate with the elevated purpose that is the shared, central feature of our calling.
As we progress in our medical careers, our professional decisions form a picture. What kind of person am I, as I practice medicine? What do I want my medical career to look like in its totality? Keeping these important, larger-picture questions in mind throughout our careers prevents us from losing our way.
Because medicine is a dynamic field that touches every aspect of our human condition, it may be unwise to settle for safe, humdrum, risk-averse positions. Being a skilled, compassionate healer is not a mere job. Identifying aspirational professional goals and steadily working toward them may help you stay fresh and motivated in the face of medicine’s many tribulations.
Inspiring role models abound. Although medical progress depends on the accomplishments of academically-minded clinical researchers and public servants like Drs. Anthony Fauci and Rochelle Walensky, physician-writers like Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Oliver Sacks, have healed and educated millions with the written word. One of my heroes is purpose-driven physician Dr. Rick Sacra, an Ebola survivor who splits his time between the Family Health Center of Worcester, Massachusetts and the Eternal Love Winning Hospital in Liberia.
As some MD careers take off in exciting new directions in their second half, a sabbatical may help you explore new directions. Living a modest lifestyle may prepare you for opportunities that enrich you in non-material ways. Once you identify your own compelling aspirational goal, you may gain perspective on the stress and strain of everyday practice.
Organizations that nurture physicians’ careers in these ways are able to attract and retain the best doctors.
Steve Adelman is a psychiatrist and can be reached at his self-titled site, AdelMED.
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