Do yourself a favor: Leave the country and see how health care is abroad

Here’s some advice for your career in health care: Leave the country as soon as possible.

This has nothing to do with the president’s attempts to euthanize the Affordable Care Act. Or with EMRs, Medicare reimbursements, or the burnout surveys you get from your employer, who also sends emails aimed at getting you to work faster and more efficiently.

It’s none of that. You need to leave the country, just for a week or two, and provide medical care to someone who would have a hard time getting it without you. Go somewhere where the waiting room is a line at the clinic door: no 500-gallon aquariums, or tapestry-sized TVs dangling from the wall. You need to go somewhere where your patient took a 10-hour bus ride out of the Agrarian Age just to see if you can help them. You need to see how the other half lives, the much larger “half” of the world that doesn’t enjoy anything near our standard of living.

This isn’t a do-gooder diatribe. No pictures of the kids with the flies in their eyes. Do this for yourself. When you get there, you will undoubtedly see how overwhelming the needs are, and how seemingly inconsequential your efforts would appear. Like standing next to a sequoia, or staring up at the eclipsing sun, the experience will make you feel very small. It will take your mind off whether your kid has chosen exactly the right college major, whether your current set of kitchen knives will make it through the holidays, or whether you’re paying too much for your current cable package. What a relief. This is something an antidepressant cannot do for you.

It’d be nice if your particular medical talents include cleft palate repair, or tropical medicine, but bring whatever skills you have. You can do something. It’s OK to start small and safe: you don’t have to be choppered into a sub-Saharan civil war.

Don’t go with the self-aggrandizing attitude that you’ll be reaching out to the poor, ignorant, masses. They can smell haughtiness a mile off, and besides, it makes you look fat and bloated. Try humility. Remember, you didn’t hit a triple; you were born on third base. And being uneducated doesn’t make one unintelligent.

Don’t go to hone or resurrect your skills on “the natives,” thinking they’ll be too unsophisticated to notice, or that something is better than nothing. They deserve more than that. You’ll almost certainly learn how to do more with less, but it’s not always the case that something is better than nothing. Particularly when you and your team aren’t in it for the long run.

And don’t wait till the kids are settled, or the 401k has hit some subjective threshold, or you’re retired. Now is the right time, while you have the energy for it. Do it. Go.

Craig Bowron is an internal medicine physician and can be reached at his self-titled site, Craig Bowron, MD. Peter Melchert is an internal medicine-pediatrics physician.

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