The darker side of being a doctor


I recently read an article written by a human physician about her personal feelings and other people’s reactions to her decision to quit practicing medicine.

The author frames the article around how her choice was made after she recognized how detrimental her career was to her own health. The irony of a doctor abandoning her profession because it was causing her to become physically and emotionally ill was not lost on me.

Through eloquent text, she explains how stressors she encountered as a doctor on a daily basis negatively impacted her quality of life, and also how her perceptions of what her profession should have been differed so much from the actual reality of what her life actually was.

To quote the author directly, “I no longer believe it was weakness or selfishness that led me to abandon clinical practice. I believe it was self-preservation. I knew I didn’t have the stamina and single-mindedness to try to provide high-quality, compassionate care within the existing environment. Perhaps, due to temperament or timing, I was less immune than others to the stresses of practicing medicine in a health care system that often seemed blind to humanness, both mine and my patients’.”

I read her words, and contemplated, “Why is there such a discrepancy between the public’s perception of what we (as medical professionals) are capable of, and what we (as medical professionals who are also human beings) are truly able to sustain?”

Doctors, regardless of the species they concentrate on, possess certain typical personality traits that enable our success, but also contribute to our fallibility:

We are individuals who are driven to succeed, but in many cases this is because we have been told all along how difficult our paths would be.

We are healers, who we wish to alleviate pain and suffering, but this often comes at the expense of our own best interests.

We are persistent, because we have endured years of educational training far beyond those of our friends, but this comes with the sacrifice of maintaining those same friendships.

We are martyrs, because we so rarely bring these characteristics to the forefront, but rather bury them behind simply “enduring” the need to accommodate more and more appointments, complete endless piles of records, answer emails, return phone calls, and remain constantly on call during our days off.

My concern is our sacrifice likely happens more out of fear of not living up to beliefs without consideration to how this impacts our ability to practice our craft successfully. As the author of the article so movingly stated, doctors never wish to feel weak or selfish. Public perception demands we are the exact opposite, and we feed the perception (willingly or not).

But at some point, we must ask ourselves, “Is this a healthy way to endure?”

Why is it acceptable for our quality of life to decline in order to support those we commit ourselves to caring for?  At what point do we notice the diminishing drive and drain of empathy affects not only our patient care, but also our own lives to the point we are losing sleep about our cases on a nightly basis? And why should veterinarians face the additional burden of doing all of the above while simultaneously keeping costs at a minimum, or otherwise being labeled as “in it just for the money”?

We all complain about the cold and impersonal side of medicine. We’ve all had experiences with doctors devoid of any sense of bedside manner. Outsiders may contend emotional distancing is as an inherent trait of medical professionals.   I would argue it might be a byproduct of the career itself.

As someone working directly from the trenches of the exam room, I can tell you the pressures and expectations are great, the rewards are low, and it’s far more common than you might expect we take things home with us and sleep uneasy (if at all) because of our concerns about not only our patients, but our job security. The very nature of the personality traits, which at their best enabled us to achieve our goals of becoming doctors, can, at their worst, also be our Achilles heel.

I’m not suggesting all doctors possessing compassion will eventually burn out, as there are many capable medical professionals who can retain their souls through years of practice. However, if you are fortunate enough to work alongside a doctor or veterinarian you feel retains kindness, patience, empathy and intelligence I would urge you to take a moment to let them know how much you appreciate their perseverance, dedication, and talent.

Those simple words may be just what they need to hear to weather them through their day.

Joanne Intile is a veterinary oncologist who blogs at Growth Factors.

Image credit:


View 26 Comments >

Most Popular

✓ Join 150,000+ subscribers
✓ Get KevinMD's most popular stories