Our medical degrees are in boxes

I remember visiting my pediatrician as a child, and even at a young age I was in awe of his degrees hanging on the wall. Looking back, I think I may have looked like the kid in Norman Rockwell’s Doctor with my behind in the air waiting to get a vaccination while staring in fascination at my pediatrician’s diplomas. Even at that young age, I could appreciate that these placards hanging silently on the wall that I never saw before meant that the person in the white coat that was examining me had this privilege because of the diplomas hanging on his wall. It’s engrained in our psyche early on in life and then rooted deeper in movies and real life that having degrees mean one has the experience and knowledge to be a professional. As I kid, I never thought I would be able to be like this great man who had the ability to help people who were sick.

When I entered medical school as a student, I dreamed what it would be like having my medical degree in hand. Walking across the stage, seeing the proud look in my classmates’ and parents’ eyes was an ethereal thought bubble during those many late night study sessions. So when I finally made it through medical school and finished my post-graduate training, my next fantasy was what my office was going to look like with all of my fancy framed diplomas and certifications hanging glaringly on the wall like the medals a general wears on his uniform.

When I took my first job, I went around meeting my colleagues in their offices, and looking around I noticed their walls were mostly blank. Sure there were occasional pictures of family, handmade drawing from their children, or motivational posters, but gone were the walls emanating with degrees and accomplishments. Office after office, with rare exception, there were boxes of diplomas packed sadly in the corner of their offices. I wondered, why did they not want to display these trophies of a long and difficult journey toward become an attending physician.

Maybe it is because we moved into our new offices almost a year ago and hanging degrees wasn’t a priority. Maybe it is because we see patients in separate exam rooms and patients never really come to our personal offices to see our diplomas anyway. Maybe we take less pride in the documentation of our success, and more in our interpersonal expressions of gratitude. Or maybe it was because there was no guarantee of when those diplomas would be forced to come off the wall since job security as a physician is a thing of the past, much like Norman Rockwell’s paintings.

Physicians are increasingly being scrutinized both by administrators and less advanced practitioners who in the process of doing their jobs and trying to keep the office or health system running sometimes devalue our accomplishments. I love my work and my team, but I wonder if we as physicians have been made to feel less gratified by what we have achieved because of the pressures that impact our work on a daily basis. There is hope though, as many physicians are discussing ways to empower themselves and build better relationships with other stakeholders in medicine where possible. But I think the first step in valuing what we do, is taking our degrees out of those boxes that confine them and stand up for our accomplishments.

Marc Braunstein is a hematologist-oncologist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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