Real doctors see patients. For years, I have held this thought as a truth. But it’s not a fact; it’s a belief, and it is no longer serving me.
I’ve been questioning this belief for a while, but this weekend at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition, I gained some clarity. There, I met, heard from, and spoke with so many fascinating physicians—physicians who are doing all sorts of amazing things in support of children. In conversations, I found myself asking each of them, “Are you still seeing patients?”
When the response was “yes,” I could feel their sense of pride, and I felt a sense of awe that they were accomplishing so much while maintaining direct patient care. When the response was “no,” it was usually followed by a justification. From me, a mixed sense of confusion (“How can you stop seeing patients?”) and wonder (“How are you so brave to go against the grain?”).
To help me make sense of this, I’ve been reflecting on Desmond Tutu’s famous quote, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”
To me, this quote is a beautiful metaphor reflecting the state of our health care system, with the traditional doctors downstream overwhelmed by the number and complexity of patients we are faced with every day. But take a step back and look at the big picture. Those upstream physicians, focused on policy change, payment reform, health inequities, and innovative practice solutions, have the potential to make our days easier and improve outcomes for our patients.
Let’s go back to why we became doctors. For the most part, it’s some version of wanting to help people. Who says that there is only one way to do that? We all bring different strengths and interests to our doctoring. But at our core, we are all working in service of humanity. Why is there judgment on how we serve?
The self-judgments fly the other way as well. One of my pediatrician friends was given a leadership role at his organization. He hated it. Managing people and creating policies were not for him. He gave it up and went back to “just” seeing patients (his words). As if just seeing patients is a failure? We should respect one another and, most importantly, respect ourselves. I applaud my colleague who was brave enough to say “no” to the part of the job that didn’t suit him and focus on his passion.
I don’t know what’s next in store for me, but if I decide to stop seeing patients and focus on supporting physicians or on improving the health care system in some meaningful way, I want to do so with pride. I’m not retiring or bailing out. I’m contributing in a new way.
I encourage you to be your truest, most authentic self and bring forth your version of “doctoring.” There is more than enough work to go around. Collectively, we will best serve humanity by having physicians in all roles, working collaboratively, supporting one another, and being grateful for each other’s contributions. Wherever you choose to dig in, find your spot and dig for gold.
Jennifer Shaer is a pediatrician and chief wellness officer, Allied Physicians Group, and a certified executive and life coach. She is founder, Shaer Coaching, and can be reached on Facebook. She is available for one-on-one coaching and speaking engagements: Feel free to schedule a conversation with Dr. Shaer or reach out by email.