A couple of years ago, I read an article by Dr. Profeta at LinkedIn called “These four words that may offend you … may also just save you.” He was invited to talk about burnout in medicine and did not get a warm reception.
“It’s just a job.”
The “it” in this case is medicine. Medicine, just like any other, is just a job. Let that sink in. Everything you’ve worked for and sacrificed for is just a job.
Do you find that liberating? Or does it hurt a bit?
Is pediatrics my calling?
Last week one of my students asked me if pediatrics was “my calling.” I told him I didn’t view medicine as a calling.
He wilted. Disappointed. I don’t think he ever heard someone disagree with the “medicine is a calling” trope. I started med school in 2007. It took me nearly a decade to hear a different message.
He was struggling with finding his own path, and I think he wanted me to enthusiastically convince him that pediatrics is what he should do with his career. That there is some mystical quality about pediatrics that “calls” you to invest your life in it.
It is true that pediatrics is the only field in medicine that I can see myself doing. Kids are the best. Adults not so much. I know, ageism … sorry-not-sorry.
Kids are resilient, fun and bring joy to our lives, and I find pediatrician-ing immensely satisfying.
But it does not define who I am, and I do not feel “called” to do it.
I don’t have a medicine origin story that anyone can point at to be inspired. I couldn’t think of what else to do after college — so I went to med school. That’s how I decided. I liked science and didn’t want to be a scientist … so, doctor it is.
Medicine is my job, and I am a professional with a code of ethics, integrity, and compassion. Medicine is intellectually engaging and emotionally rewarding. It is meaningful work, and we can have a true and lasting impact on someone’s life. But it can also be all-consuming, overwhelmingly sad, heartbreaking and mind-numbingly frustrating. We share in the very best and worst moments in people’s lives.
Thinking of medicine as a job doesn’t mean I am uncaring or “faking” my compassion.
Sure, my sense of self and identity is tied into it a bit. But that would be true no matter the profession. But part of the story I tell myself about myself is that I go to work as a pediatrician, but then I come home and am me.
I’m not a pediatrician at home. I’m someone who has a baby boy, a wife, a loving family. Someone who loves fantasy books and Final Fantasy games. Someone whose ringtone is the Prelude from Final Fantasy 7 and has learned to enjoy writing. I am a rock climber, a maniac on a bike and a gardener.
A stave for burnout?
Our identities are so easily wrapped around being physicians partially because of how much we sacrificed on the way here, how prestigious that identity is and how much value we can derive from our work. But to tie too much of ourselves to this profession can be a recipe for disaster.
There is too much nonsense with managed care, administrative burden, and systems that are designed to fail us all. To tie yourself completely to this mess means that each one of these failures cuts a little deeper than it should. Every time the quality of your care suffers or the impossible expectations surrounding the work you do aren’t met, then part of you is wounded.
Bad things happen. It is all too easy to think that when they do then not only “Am I a bad doctor?” but “I am bad?” and “I am undeserving of this mantle.” How can we live with these unrealistic expectations of ourselves?
I don’t think we should.
I am not burned out. I’m mostly cool with the work, the hours, the stress of caring for sick kids and supervising residents. I’ve had some hard moments, like anyone else, but they pass, and I’m back to enjoying the job.
I think part of my resilience is because I have a similar outlook as Dr. Profeta.
Medicine is my job, one that I care deeply about — but it does not define who I am. Although it forms part of my identity, I do not derive my self-worth from it. Nor do I feel “called” to be in this profession. I will work hard and do my best because that is my ethic. But my passion, my calling, is what is waiting for me at home.
How about you? Do you view medicine as a “calling?” Do you think having a less all-encompassing view of how medicine ties to your identity could help with decreasing burnout?
“Kpeds” is a pediatrician who blogs at Pediatrician Finds Financial Independence.
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