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(MedEd)itorial: Doctors Are Human Beings, Too

I’m about to say something shocking, so prepare yourself.

You are a human being.

That’s right. You’re not just a medical student or professional. You’re a living, breathing person, with responsibilities and interests that have nothing to do with medicine. This may sound simple, but it’s something most forget at some point in their careers.

People who enter the profession tend to be extremely hard working, driven, goal-oriented individuals. We’re encouraged to do research, take advanced science classes and labs during undergrad, and participate in extracurricular activities that will improve our chances of getting into a top medical school. Once there, we continue to do research and extracurricular activities to land the best residency possible, and during residency we repeat this process to obtain the best fellowship position or employment opportunities.

But what about that non-medical part of you? Does it even exist? Should it even exist? Should you be pursuing anything that will take time away from your endeavor to become the best possible physician you can be?

In this post, I’m going to make the case for a resounding “yes.”

Many medical professionals think of the “doctor” in them and the “non-doctor” in them. But this dichotomy is inherently false. Each one of us is a complete human being. There is no way to separate certain aspects of ourselves from the rest. So it’s worth reminding that to be a better doctor, you must also strive to be a better human being – and that your identity as a doctor is deeply interconnected with the rest of who you are.

Our institutions are only just now realizing this and questioning whether simply learning as much science as possible is the best way to produce the next generations of physicians. In the past few years we’ve seen changes made and options created that never existed before.

One example is the new MCAT. Last year the AAMC radically updated the exam, most notably by including a fourth section called “Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior.” The AAMC realized most physicians will spend a good deal of their day on patient care, and decided it was important for people entering the medical profession to have some knowledge and understanding of psychology and sociology.

Another recent change is the introduction of non-traditional pathways to medical school. While most programs exclusively accept people who majored in the sciences, some are now geared toward attracting students from a wider range of disciplines, such as HuMed at University of New England and FlexMed at Mt. Sinai.

These changes are certainly welcome, and I’m glad some schools are realizing that a comprehensive knowledge of science and medicine alone isn’t enough to make doctors great. But the progress medical education has made is framed in the context of only making one a better doctor, and I believe this understanding is flawed.

I remember often feeling guilty for spending time reading things outside of medicine or writing for my personal blog. After all, how could I justify spending so many hours on pursuits that did not advance my medical knowledge? I could certainly stand to learn more. How could I take time away from doing things that would make me a better doctor? Wasn’t I doing my patients a great disservice?

As it turns out, doctors are human beings too. You’re allowed to take a painting class or learn how to do stand-up paddle boarding, even if you have no idea how it will contribute to your becoming a better physician. Would anybody ever ask anything different of a teacher, lawyer, or accountant? During our training, we spend so much time studying that it’s easy to forget that becoming a doctor doesn’t negate the rest of who and what we are.

It’s impossible to develop one part of yourself while leaving the rest of you completely untouched. When you become a better, fuller, more well-rounded human being, it makes every part of you better. There’s no need to always figure out how something will make you a better doctor; it will happen naturally as long as you improve upon who you were yesterday.

So give yourself permission to explore and develop beyond the field of medicine. I think you’ll like the results.