Letter to Junior Doctors #7: The Upside of Quitting
When I was in my final year at medical school one of my professors said at our valedictory ceremony that only 75% of us would still be practicing medicine in 10 years time. I thought he was crazy. What on earth would the other 25% be doing? Why go through all that training and then not use it? Little did I know at the time that I would be among that minority.
Medical school is a long and tough journey. Certainly where I studied the academic year started at least a month before the rest of the university, and we would always finish later. What’s more, during the year we seemed to always be on the go, from one clinical rotation to the next.
Of course for many people this was all part of the investment. “One day it will be worth it,” we told ourselves. We put our heads down and worked hard, knowing we would be rewarded in the end with the career we had always dreamed of.
But what happens when that dream sours? Or if the reality doesn’t quite live up to what we’d expected? Or even if we find during our studies that we really don’t love it?
I don’t know this for sure, but my guess from speaking to hundreds of doctors and medical students is that many just continue on the chosen path, struggling on miserably. There is fear of saying: “This isn’t working for me; I want out”.
I can’t tell you the number of people who get in touch with me to express their disenchantment. I sometimes feel like an agony aunt for doctors and medical students. I’ve grown used to hearing how people feel stuck in a profession that they feel they can’t back out of.
As tough as these doctors find their work, I think what bothers them even more is the shame they feel for not loving what they do. Certainly for me I was plagued by these feelings for years, even after I chose to walk away:
- A sense of having failed.
- Fear of disappointing my family and community.
- Loss of identity. Who was I if I wasn’t a doctor?
- Practical concerns – what else could I do with a medical degree?
Believe it or not, I’m not an advocate for people leaving the medical profession, even though that’s the route I chose to take. I feel more strongly that we need doctors in the healthcare system who love what they are doing, who are advocates for their patients, and who are committed to changing the system from within.
But I also know what it’s like to not love being in the hospital, to struggle with the day-to-day responsibilities, and to battle to see yourself in the same environment in the future.
I think it’s more constructive and beneficial for everyone concerned for any doctor or medical student who hates what they are doing to get out and choose another path. There are plenty of ways to make a difference; there are many ways to positively impact healthcare other than being at the coalface of clinical practice.
In a TEDx talk I gave a year ago I spoke about how the world needs us at our best. It serves no-one to struggle on miserably; it actually does more harm than good.
You’re not going to love your job every day. That’s normal. But if you find yourself in a constant state of misery, when the thought of facing your work and your patients fills you with dread, or if you just feel that you would be better suited to a different occupation, then by all means go for it.
You serve no-one by struggling on. Go and find what makes you come alive.