Things to ask yourself prior to starting a career in medicine

When people have asked me what it takes to be a physician, I usually tell them that there are three things that every doctor must have. And no, being scared of blood is not a deal breaker. Three out of the six people who did their surgery rotation with me in medical school fainted at one point or another. They’re all physicians today! One turned out to be a surgeon himself!

The first thing you have to have to become a great physician is a love of learning. If I go back and count all of my years of formal education it comes to a total of twenty-three. But that number is deceiving because when you decide to become a physician, your education never stops. This may sound trite, but it’s actually required by all the specialties of medicine under Continuing Medical Education (CME). So nearly every day as a doctor is spent learning new things. If that’s something you don’t love, it won’t come easy.

The second thing a doctor must have is a love of science. Medicine today is not based nearly as much on personal experience as it once was. Health care revolves around evidence-based practices that have been developed from scientific studies. This is a good thing because the outcomes for patients have dramatically improved by using scientific reasoning. Not only this, but much of the understanding of how the human body works is based in anatomy and physiology which is of course one of the disciplines of hard core science. Most of a student’s time is spent in these and other scientific courses such as physics, math and chemistry so if you don’t have a grasp and enjoyment of science from the outset, imagine how hard it will be to force yourself into something that doesn’t come naturally.

The third and probably most important thing that you should ask yourself prior to going down the path towards an MD degree is “Can I commit my life to caring about others?” This sounds like an easy yes or no question, but behind it are issues that will shape your life forever. To become a physician is to put other’s interests before yours. That means that you might end up working long, strenuous hours sacrificing parts of life that others take for granted. You will be put into situations where you have to choose: Am I going to be lazy, scared, intolerant or distant from my patient or am I going to do everything in my power to help them live the life they want. Obviously, putting the patient first means putting your life second. Before you start down this path, you should ask yourself honestly: “Am I capable of giving up what I want for what others need?”

Published on: November 12, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Dan Imler MD

Dan Imler, MD is a pediatric hospitalist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University. Not only does he enjoy taking care of patients, but is actively involved in resident education, international health and medical informatics.

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