10 lessons from my first year as a female attending physician

1. Change is slow. In fact, it’s much slower than I ever imagined. Part of the issue is that people don’t like change; another is that workplace culture often doesn’t support new ideas.

Tackling this issue: Shift your focus. Get to know people first. Be present. Changing perceptions and convincing people to change first requires that you know them, and they know you.

2. Patience is a virtue. It’s always better to think before you say something; wait before you send an angry response to an email that you’ll later regret.

Tackling this issue: Stay calm and speak calmly, regardless of how anyone else is speaking to you because it automatically gives you the upper hand. The moment you lose your cool, you start to lose credibility, and people stop listening to what you’re saying.

3. Generational differences exist. Leading those that are older than you can be very challenging. You must be patient (ha!) and learn to communicate on another level.

Example: I have a great relationship with the senior attendings I work with now and am comfortable being a little bossy with them. But when I first started, I always made sure to ask their opinion before telling them to do anything. It sets a different tone for the dynamic and, I think, can serve to soften the weirdness of having a younger person telling you what to do.

4. Female resentment is real. Many women don’t like being told what to do by another woman, let alone one who is younger than them. In addition, we will not get the same undue respect as our male counterparts. We are held to a different standard, come under greater scrutiny, and are questioned way more often than our male colleagues.

Tackling this issue: I’ve learned over time that I need to ignore it and not let the attitudes get to me instead of focusing on what I know is right and needs to be done. At the end of the day, it really is all about patient care.

5. You must develop coping mechanisms. Medicine is a very frustrating profession—lots of players, and lots of things out of a doctor’s and administrator’s control. You must find a way to cope. Otherwise, you will go insane.

Tackling this issue: Find some work friends you trust and vent; join a gym; take vacations to give yourself breaks; see a therapist. Whatever it is, do it and do it regularly. Me? I do all of the above.

6. Don’t take anything personally. Often, the reason for someone’s anger/frustration has nothing to do with you. However, it’s natural to get offended when we are told things we don’t like or understand. This then leads to self-doubt, wondering whether we are good enough and feeling like we don’t belong (hello, imposter syndrome!).

Tackling this issue: Train yourself to remember that it’s not personal. I repeat this fact to myself constantly.

7. Pick your battles. Don’t drive yourself crazy if something doesn’t go exactly how you want. Choose the things that will really matter in the long run. Not every fight is worth fighting.

Example: There are a thousand ways to administer anesthesia. When someone does something I don’t like, I have to evaluate if what they are doing is actually unsafe or if I’m just being my type A, picky self. If I’m picky, then I leave it alone. I only assert myself if the patient is really sick or I think my colleague is being unsafe–because at the end of the day, safety trumps all.

8. People will comment on your age/appearance. As a female physician, this happens much more often. You will also be mistaken for a nurse or other staff worker. As a minority, this may happen more often.

Tackling this issue: Learn to ignore it, or develop a response that adequately addresses their comment and also helps you move the conversation along.

Example: When a patient asks how old I am, I cheerfully reply, “I’m definitely old enough to be your doctor!” I usually get a laugh or a chuckle in response, and then I move the conversation back to where it was.

9. You won’t be good at everything. I’ve learned more about my professional strengths and weaknesses since becoming an attending physician than I ever realized when in school or in training.

Tackling this issue: Recognize your strengths and continue to refine and build them up. Accept your weaknesses and learn to ask for help with them. Don’t pretend to be good at it. (Yes, asking for help is difficult, and the last thing you want is to appear incompetent. However, consider it a learning opportunity. Maybe one day, this weakness will turn into a strength!)

In business, I’ve read several articles that state good managers play up their strengths and delegate their weaknesses. This is not always possible in medicine, where we are expected to know and be good at everything. But, I think we can acknowledge and promote our strengths and then ask for help with our weaknesses as we continue to work on and improve them.

10. As women, we are much more critical of ourselves. Do you blame yourselves whenever something goes wrong, even if it wasn’t your fault? Or berate yourselves for days after a perceived mistake was made? Critically analyzing situations and your behaviors is important. However, being so hard on yourself can be debilitating.

Tackling this issue: Try to build yourself up rather than beat yourself up. Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes. As much as you are thinking about your mistake long after it happened, everyone else has likely forgotten about it.

In summary

There’s a steep learning curve when you become an attending physician. So, give yourself a chance to figure things out; forgive yourself; practice self-care; allow yourself to continue to learn and grow. And don’t let anyone or any situation bring you down. Because you are good enough and you deserve to be here.

Sanjana Vig is an anesthesiologist and can be reached at BeThree.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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