November 7, 2019

BETTEZ | So You Think You Want to Be a Doctor?

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My small hometown’s emergency medical services was so understaffed that at one point they started training some high school kids to be certified EMTs. Throughout junior year, my classmates and I took night classes so that the next year we could carry pagers around school and respond to  ambulance calls during the day. We learned how to do CPR, identify a stroke, treat burn injuries — pretty much the worst cases of every scenario. But once we were on real calls, I started to realize how bloodthirsty we had become. Secretly and out loud to each other, we hoped for emergencies — and not just minor injuries that would get us out of class. We wanted the gruesome and deadly stuff: heart attacks, risky childbirth, anaphylaxis, and most of all, dramatic car wrecks. The more intensely we wished pain upon unnamed others for our own entertainment, the more I started to wonder why we had wanted this so badly.

On our program applications, we wrote about our desire to help people. But I wasn’t so sure how selfless our intentions were and how much we actually cared about the well-being of the people we were meant to help. As you might expect, most of the other EMT’s went on to pursue careers in the medical field as physician’s assistants, nurses, and most often, pre-medical students. I truly believe that these peers are all bright, and through their training, perhaps more experienced and knowledgeable about what their future careers will entail than most. Still, I wondered, was this really a matter of if they could do it, or if they should?

The idea of a career in medicine is seductive. To be a doctor is many of the things we’re told to look for in a career: altruistic, prestigious, respected and well-paying. If you grew up as a so-called “gifted kid,” it’s likely that at some point in your childhood, someone suggested to you that you should pursue a career as a doctor.

Despite the allure of the profession, 70% of American physicians claim that they wouldn’t recommend their profession to others. They’re plagued by high rates of burnout and an increased suicide rate and strained under the crushing burden of debt for their combined undergraduate and medical degrees. By the time most doctors are able to pay off their loans, their education has cost them roughly $220,000 with interest factored in. That might even be a conservative estimate, some sources I saw attested that it was over $400,000. Frustrated by the complexities of the American insurance system and the loss of a more personal doctor-patient relationship with the current trend toward the digitization of medicine, they’re retiring early and leaving their profession at record rates.

Yet, there seems to be no shortage of young adults eager to follow in their footsteps. Maybe a career as a doctor is something we’re often exposed to throughout our childhood, making it a career we’re more likely to pursue. Many kids visit a doctor for a yearly checkup and often see them portrayed on television, from depictions in children’s shows to medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy.

But I can’t accept that this is the whole story.

Some people’s fervent desire to become a doctor stems simultaneously from a desire to play the hero and get rich. Everyone says they want to be a doctor to save lives, but doctors themselves are not unique in the number of lives they can save compared to some other career paths. The inventor of penicillin saved hundreds of millions of lives, and the engineers who invented the modern seat belt and airbags probably save more lives each day than a single doctor will in a lifetime. Pharmacy and engineering will pay pretty nicely too, and they don’t come with  the crippling debt that you can’t start paying off until your 30s or 40s.

I asked my older sister, who’s a medical student, what she would say to someone currently pursuing a career in the medical field. She worked as an EMT throughout high school and college, and unlike me, her involvement with EMS pushed her to pursue a career as a doctor. Despite the debt her pursuit of medicine has put her in and the stress it’s caused her, she’s found from doctors she knows who still enjoy their work that it’s worth it for the privilege of sharing the vulnerability of people at the best and worst moments of their lives. Even just as a medical student, patients have confided in her with deeply personal and emotional memories, like the day a spouse died. Being a doctor isn’t about the money or prestige, but instead being able to express compassion and touch a stranger’s life. And if you’re not a pre-med for that, I think it’s time to reconsider your choice of career. If the money truly doesn’t matter and you want to make an individual and personal difference in people’s lives, then perhaps consider social work, a career in another sector of health care, and remember that bettering the world is not limited to medicine.

Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at mlb434@cornell.edu. Bet on It runs every other Friday this semester.