Is Medicine “Just a Job” like anything else?

Medicine – it is often described as more than just a career. It’s a life. It’s a calling. It’s a passion. There’s a reason we call it “LifeofaMedStudent” – the training and commitment to medicine is beyond the scope of working at a coffee shop or flipping burgers – it’s lifelong. But with all that passion and desire to live a life devoted to medicine – why are physician burnout rates so high? The answer, according to a happily practicing ER doc and fellow Hoosier – Dr. Louis M. Profeta, is that we don’t remind our selves enough of one key fact: “It’s just a job.”

Widely circulated on the internet, this 1987 photo shows CV surgeon Dr. Zbigniew Religa after Poland’s first successful heart transplant. The operation lasted 23 hours. Is this “just a job?”

 

In a controversial post, Dr. Profeta describes how he personally and his busy ER group have a low burnout rate because of that simple mindset – “it’s just a job.” Read his post here:  These four words that may offend you… may also just save you.

Health care workers, he felt, are looking less for solutions to the real problem of burnout but more for ever-growing praise of their sacrifices. Because of the hard work, compassion and dedication our job requires, we WANT to be seen as having the hardest job in the world. We WANT to be praised. And when we go through difficult days at work, we WANT everyone to know our job is unique or special.

“As the discussion went on that morning, a common theme emerged. Many of these people did not want suggestions on how to keep from being burned out. What they wanted was to be fawned over and congratulated on how compassionate they were, and how they had the hardest jobs in the world, and that no one could possibly understand the work or appreciate how hard their jobs were.”

“Listen, no matter how we like to hold up ourselves as the pillars of compassion, the keepers of the public well-being, we are just one profession out of countless others that keep our world moving. We are no more heroes than the social worker visiting homes in the projects, the farmer up at 4 to feed the cattle, the ironworker strapped to a beam on the 50th floor. We are no more a hero than the single mom working overnight as a custodian, trying to feed her kids. We are no more heroic than countless others who work in jobs they perhaps hate in order to care for and support the people they love.”

My argument for Dr. Profeta is how many of those professions go through years and years of school and residency before their lives are settled. How many give up the better part of their 20s in library after library trying to beat the next standardized test? How many face student loan debt averaging in the $200,000s now? How many of them see horrible acts of violence or sadness with patients that stay in our conscious for years? How many of those jobs work grueling hours, regularly missing family events, weekends, and holidays? How many get up for work each day knowing a mistake could cost a life? It can’t be JUST A JOB can it?

Maybe it can…

What gets truly lost in all the physician burnout negativity is just how well rewarded we are as physicians. We get to have amazing educations in many of the best institutions in the country. We have been blessed with both intelligence and compassion. We get to see the best of people every day. We get to hold the newborn as we hand off to a crying mom and dad. We get to see people recover and leave hospitals every day, better off because of our care. And so, so many of our patients are very grateful for what we get the opportunity to do every day. Then on top of that, physicians are one of the most well paid professions in the country. With proper financial planning, we have more than enough to pay back the loans and eventually live a lifestyle better than 90+% of Americans.

How many of those jobs listed above wish they could do something else? How many of them wish they could work fewer hours and still make ends meet? How many think they deal with too much administration or too many bosses? How many of them work the same long hours, weekends, and holidays? How many jobs out there literally risk their lives – whether be fire, police, military or that ironworker on the 50th floor? How many have “bad days” and swear this is the last year they are doing it? Probably a lot. In some fields maybe even as many as with medicine. Maybe “burnout” is an issue in medicine in a large part because our mindset makes it that way.

Are there easier ways to make less money? Definitely, and plenty of them. Are there easier ways to make the same amount of money and have the positive impacts on peoples’ lives that we do every day? Certainly not many or reliably. We were all blessed for the skills to have this job and then chose this job. And just maybe Dr. Profeta is on to something here. Maybe our problem is we too frequently think that we are special, think that we need the extra recognition for our sacrifices. When the reality is maybe IT IS “just a job” – one that we need to remember we are already highly rewarded for – both emotionally and financially.

What do you think? Is it just a job? Or something greater? I certainly can see arguments for both sides here – and even writing this myself wonder if I can truly ever believe what I’ve dedicated myself to is “just a job.” 


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5 Comments

  1. This is excellent. I’ve very quietly felt like I have what could be considered at best a career, but is essentially just a series of jobs. An important, rewarding, and sometimes stressful job, but still… a job.

    It’s never felt like a calling. For me, becoming a physician was a vocational choice. That might have something to do with the fact I’m looking forward to an early retirement. I don’t think I’ll miss it as much as some of my colleagues probably would.

    Best,
    -PoF

    • Thanks for the comment! I’d noticed on your blog it seemed like you more and more treat anesthesia as a means to an end rather than a calling. To pick your brain a bit, was it always that way? Did you ever “love” the field or think it was more than a pay check? I honestly at this point love my job. But I wonder what I’ll think in 15 years.

      • I have always felt it’s quite a privilege to be able to do what we do. “Privilege” isn’t as strong a word as “calling” but it better describes my feelings about the job.

        It would be untrue to say I can’t imagine doing anything else. I think that’s what a calling should feel like.

        Best,
        -PoF

  2. As I entered med school, I remember the older docs grumbling about how medicine isn’t what it used to be. I thought that my class would be fine because we knew about the changes and we were prepared for them…
    I forgot to take into account the future changes we’d face that we weren’t prepared for. Yes, we care about our patients and we work very hard after years and decades of sacrifice. We’re okay with that. But it’s hard to love a job where the job doesn’t love you, where the administration makes you feel like just another cog in a wheel fueled by patient satisfaction surveys and cost-cutting measures.
    To our patients we’ll be true, but to our employers, well, we appreciate the paycheck but we have little loyalty.

    • Great comment – I often think on this – that since I don’t know the “good ole days” of medicine maybe I won’t know any better. But like you said, it’s the future changes that are hard to prepare for, and that slippery slope of greater admin intrusion and dissatisfaction that causes so much burnout. But like the post suggests, maybe that attitude of simply cashing the paycheck and moving on is an answer.

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