As a fourth-year medical student, it was fairly easy to maintain a healthy lifestyle. When you have much leisure time and are relatively stress free, you can eat healthy, stay physically active and maintain quality mental health. However, as I begin the journey called residency, it is clear that the task of maintaining my own health will be much more difficult.
But the importance of this task should not be overlooked. As health care providers, we are entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the health of our patient, yet we often cannot even ensure our own health.
Although many physicians eat healthier and exercise more than the general American public, nearly 15% of physicians are still obese. Moreover, physicians have higher rates of alcohol and prescription drug abuse than the general public.
The unhealthy behaviors of physicians affect the health care system in many ways. The first is that in our role as patients in the health care system and our healthy lifestyle behaviors contribute to health care costs. Some health scholars have noted that health behaviors are the greatest contributor to health care costs.
More importantly, unhealthy lifestyle behaviors impact our patients. On a basic level, poor physician health affects how well we feel we can care for our patients. Furthermore, physicians cannot serve as a credible source of advice on healthy lifestyle behaviors if they do not practice what they preach. Patients are more likely to follow recommendations if the physician role models good behavior. Similarly, physicians with healthy behaviors are more likely to counsel about lifestyle behaviors.
Practicing unhealthy lifestyle behaviors may also limit our ability to sympathize with patients. We often make strict diet or exercise recommendations to our patients and wonder why they don’t follow our advice. Perhaps by imposing these strict regimens upon ourselves we can better understand that behavior change is not easy.
Personally, I know that if I had to follow the carbohydrate-restricted diet that we recommend to our diabetic patients, I would struggle mightily. Even now, I certainly do not meet adult physical activity recommendations.
But as I start my residency, I am going to do my best to develop and maintain healthy habits — not only for myself but also for my patients. I want to be the best physician I can be. As I reflect and prepare for the start of my internship, it seems clearer than ever that part of that means ensuring that I maintain my physical, emotional and mental health.
I hope I don’t lose sight of this after my first call day.
Elaine Khoong is an internal medicine resident. This article originally appeared in The American Resident Project.