The doctor trap: What it is and how to escape it

There is a trap used to capture monkeys that uses a tree with a hollowed-out trunk. The opening is just large enough for the monkey to put its hand inside. While the monkey can easily pull its empty hand out at any time, inside the hole is a larger space containing delicious nuts that the monkey craves. When the monkey grabs a large handful of nuts, it is unable to remove its hand from the hole. You may be thinking, “This can’t work. The monkey will simply let go of the nuts and pull out its hand.” Yet, the trap is effective because the monkey wants the nuts so badly, it is unwilling to let go. It will struggle and fight to remove its hand while holding the nuts. The monkey trappers easily capture the animal. The monkey was a victim of its own greed and shortsightedness.

Doctors find themselves trapped with a more abstract version of the monkey trap. In this case, it may be more appropriately called, “the doctor trap.” Doctors have a reputation for being rich. They live in big fancy houses and drive expensive cars. When they go on vacation, they take their family on big trips such as skiing or traveling to Europe.

After many years of difficult training in school and residency, a new doctor will find that there are many jobs available to them. Salaries are high, and benefits are attractive. Imagine that the trappings of wealth are the nuts waiting inside the hollowed-out tree trunk. The hungry young doctor reaches out and signs a binding contract, imagining how they will finally be able to afford big car payments and mortgage payments in addition to paying back student loans.

Freedom is now gone, replaced by working long hours at a difficult job. The freedom to spend time with family, wake up late, take time off, and travel are now severely limited. The doctor is at the mercy of employers and administrators.

If we stand back and look at the overworked, unhappy doctor, sitting in heavy traffic, working on a broken EHR, not seeing their loved-ones, being tired all the time, we may ask, “why not just drop the nuts and pull your hand out?” Is it possible for the physician to escape the doctor trap? While most doctors remain in this trapped state for life, it is possible to escape.

While it is far from easy to give up the luxury car and the doctor mansion as well as the many other perks of a high salary, the freedom that comes with removing these golden handcuffs is worth it. If you are a licensed doctor and someone tells you that you cannot make a living as a doctor without being employed by someone else, think about their motivation. Why would they want you to suffer? What is their motivation for you continuing to be miserable?

Of course, you can be free from the doctor trap. You can walk away from anything that is causing you pain. Starting your own small medical practice is possible. I see it being done all the time. It’s not hard to do. If you decide that you don’t want to work in the medical field at all, that is also fine. You have not wasted years of your life. When you move on to doing something you truly love doing, you will look back and see that everything you have been through has happened for a reason. The most important thing, for now, is to see the doctor trap for what it is and decide what you are going to do about it.

Mark Leeds is a family physician, can be reached at his self-titled site,, and podcasts at The Rehab. He can also be reached on Twitter @leedsosteopath.

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