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I'm sure many medical students and doctors would tell you the exact same thing...
I'd always wanted to study medicine. "What better job was there?" I thought. You could save lives and live in relative comfort your entire life. I'd get to emulate my childhood hero growing up, Captain Hawkeye Pierce from M.A.S.H.
I wanted to help people as I'd been helped. It was my doctor's words; that "The Good News Is You're 17 and You Have Leukaemia, but the Bad News is You're 17, And You Have Leukaemia..." and his actions that got me to believe that I actually had a chance in this... It was another patients' words the day before my transplant that really sunk in, and changed my life. Imagine being in a position to do that for people everyday!
My first day in medicine was one of the most joyful of my life.
I was so excited to finally be in a position to give back, and so delighted to be alongside so many other people who cared just as me.
For me, and for many of my classmates too.
As I progressed through the course, I got more and more burdened with work, and more and more indoctrinated (pardon the pun) into the collective Group-Think of modern medicine. One which emphasised speed over accuracy, marks over competence. One which measured success through KPIs such as reduced wait times and greater efficiency rather than reduced morbility and morbidity, and higher patient satisfaction and involvement. As everyone in this profession does.
Doctors have one of the highest rates of depression of any profession.
They are highest in suicide.
They have the highest rates of alcoholism too.
1/4 medical students are majorly depressed, and more than 1/10 will think about suicide in any given year.
Why is this happening though?
Aren't these people being paid heaps?
Don't they know the risks of the disease, and how altered biochemistry can alter your very mental state - your very person?
Well, there are many reasons why.
This article gives great explanations as to why.
Various personality traits and attitudes make doctors more likely to suffer from depression.
Perfectionists, narcicists, compulsiveness, martryism, and disparaging views of vulnerability are all commonplace. Facing death, watching good people suffer, and losing the battle over and over again also burdens doctors. Burnout from stress affects 45% of doctors, ladies and senior physicians in particular. And as this article puts so poignantly, Osler, the founder of the first American residency program, advocating for steadiness in physicians, was perhaps the largest contributor to all this...
Junior doctors and medical students have similarly sky-high rates of depression and suicide ideation (the 10% figure is a conservative estimate; studies in my nation show , but have the added pressure of exams and the weight of expectations on their shoulders too.
Furthermore, other factors, such as living on their own for the first time, often overseas for many students (where the added pressure of maintaining a steady income is another burden), high levels of student debt, and the sheer pressure of the course and succeeding itself plagues many students.
Many of my medical student and junior doctors friends complain about many of the above stresses. Many feel medicine takes over their lives. In a time where they should be out and enjoying their life, many students, as well as doctors, regret not enjoying life more. And many feel disillusioned too. They feel they were misled about what medicine actually was. About the impact they have. About the difference they make. So many of my friends express this in particular. But the toxic, competitive hospital environment, where specialty spots are limited, the medical heirachy is emphasised (and perpetuated by older doctors in an "If I went through it, they should too" manner) and bullying is rife, also pushes many young meddies over the edge.
Very recently, in my country, Australia, 3 junior doctors took their lives within one week.
Letting doctors be human
Coping with loss
Loss is something many doctors have to face.
And it's a big contributor to doctor and medical student dissatisfaction.
I can only imagine how going to work everyday, knowing that you're going to witness suffering, pain and death can be soul-wrenching. I certainly do feel disillusioned when walking through wards and seeing the same story, of a seemingly nice person, suddenly finding their health deteriorating, and then, in most cases, never reaching their whole selves again... Indeed, my first brush with depression was due to loss.
But if there's one thing I wish I could tell all doctors... It's this.
You can ALWAYS make a difference in peoples' lives!
I have friends who've passed away from this disease whose families we stay in touch with. They say those little moments, the barbeque we threw and invited them to on a whim on Father's Day, the game of snakes and ladders we played while their father lay on a deathbed smiling, they're things they'll always remember.
They needn't be done only by doctors too... My nurses were the people I was closest too in hospital. They, the receptionists and my social workers have been rocks in torrid waters for me countless times. The words Patch Adams, the world's most famous clown doctor said to me once rings true to this day - "Do you stop being a doctor once you leave the hospital?" Are good deeds and gestures limited to medical personnel? Could similar gestures on the outside help people just as much as in hospital?
All of this goes to show that no matter who you are you MUST take every opportunity to try and spread this cheer in the world. It's what makes all of this worthwhile. It's what makes your job a profession. It's why most of us got into this in the first place.
It's just a job.
It's an idea that's frowned upon, to say the least, by most medicos. The idea that we do this to help others underlies everything we do. The Hippocratic Oath we take precludes such apathy and nonchalance. But as Dr Profeta argues, this approach leads to a near zero burnout rate in ED, which usually has attrition rates upwards of 50%. Sure, smiling and nodding when required helps, but it's not necessarily helpful in the big picture.When Profeta's son was diagnosed with leukaemia, he dropped everything, and even left his post in ED, to be there for him.
Perhaps this is the best way to deal with it for some.
It's not easy to be there for people all the time.
It may well be the best way to deal with it overall... In a job where you have to face human suffering every single day, taking a step back may be the only way to cope.
But at the same time, beneath it all, we are all human. We can't help but care. And I'm sure Profeta himself would agree, when his son went through his ordeal, he would have been spared much suffering if he had a caring, empathetic doctor. One who would keep him company, talk to him at his lowest, and inspire him to keep going even when times were tough. One I was lucky enough to get myself.
Sure, there are other things we can do.
Learning to take breaks, and fostering healthy habits are other great measures we need to take.
Talking about it openly, and sharing stories is one great measure that's already making waves. Top down changes and the acknowledgement of there being an issue is another. Australia's AMA is seeking to further this, and has also taken further steps to increasing dialogue between doctors and medical students to fix the toxic culture. One of the most important things, I believe, is to get students to ask eachother, "R U OK?" 3 simple words that have and will always save lives. If people can look out for eachother, and be frank about their shortcomings, perhaps then we'll have less doctors and future doctors suffer.
I for one am trying to do my part. I hope you do yours too.
And for those thinking of doing medicine - I hope this doesn't scare you too much.
It is an amazing profession - one where you can make an impact every single day of your life.