For those who want to be doctors: Follow this piece of advice

I recently had the privilege of speaking to a group of high school students who were interested in becoming doctors. A large number of them were volunteering in my hospital, and their coordinator asked me if I could spare some time to chat with them about life as a doctor and what they should be doing to get into medicine.

I remember as if it were yesterday when I was their age, dreaming of becoming a doctor one day, and doing work experience in hospitals and clinics in order to gain the right experience and additions to my application. Time does indeed fly. At that age, most of us were very nervous and shy as we started taking our first steps in the bold adult world that awaited us. These students fitted that description perfectly, but did manage to sheepishly ask some very relevant questions about what it’s like being a physician.

As a writer and blogger with a focus on health care quality improvement and patient experience, most of what I write about is obviously aimed at highlighting the flaws and problems in our current system, and areas where we need to do better.

But that does not mean that I don’t really enjoy what I do overall, because I certainly do. There will always be a gap between what is, and what ought to be, in any field. I can honestly say that I have absolutely no regrets choosing medicine and still find it an immensely rewarding career. (If you’re looking for 5 reasons why, see this article I wrote about why being a doctor is special.)

My biggest bit of advice though for these young boys and girls, however, was nothing to do with studying textbooks or understanding the intricacies of the health care system. It was simply this: Understand that health care and medicine is about real human beings and get used to dealing with people. Being a doctor is about as much of a social job as you can get, and you will meet absolutely all sorts of folk at very emotional times in their lives. You will realize how different people are from each other, and how to respond appropriately. You will meet people at all ends of different spectrums, and recognize that there’s never any “one-size fits all approach.”

How you explain something to one person, is not the same as how you will explain it to another. How you respond to one family’s request, is not the same as how you respond to another. In your career in medicine, never forget that you are frequently seeing your patients at very low points in their lives. They will acutely remember all their interactions with you and hang on to every word you say. Every day people will pour their hearts out to you, revealing their innermost fears and concerns, when 10 minutes earlier you were complete strangers. Often, especially the elderly who may feel lonely, will be just as happy if you just sit down and talk with them — never even discussing a word of their actual illness!

The best thing those high school students could do, aside from studying (which is a given, and very obvious advice), is therefore just get used to talking to people at every opportunity. I told them to try to get over any shyness they have with this as quickly as possible. Throw themselves into getting to know people and the world around them with vigor and enthusiasm. Listen instead of talk. Observe and contemplate human interactions and behavior. Get as much experience as you can interacting with people in public places and social situations.

And as daunting as this may seem, don’t worry — you’ll surprise yourself by how much confidence you gain as you do this more. At the same time, always strive to work on your communication skills and become a better communicator. The practice of medicine always has been, and always will be, just as much (if not more) about how you interact with people than about what medicines or treatment you give them. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said over two millenia ago: “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.” It was true then, and it’s just as true today.

As much as the current health care environment may have taken doctors away from their patients in recent years with increased bureaucracy and computer tasks (and I’m still optimistic for a swing of the pendulum back to where it should be), medicine is still indeed very special. The amount of trust placed in doctors is humbling, and patients deserve nothing but the best from us. So future doctors, if you want to do one thing that will stand you in good stead: Seek a deep, profound and wise understanding of your fellow human beings.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of three books, including Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha. He is the founder and director, HealthITImprove, and blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

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