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(MedEd)itorial: Is Becoming a Doctor Still Worth It?

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received was, “If you’re going in to medicine for the money, you are making the wrong decision.”  Throughout my experience as a medical student and in to residency, I have watched as the addition of Obamacare, the expansion of managed markets, and many new regulations have greatly diminished the earning potential for the average physician. At the end of the day, I am very grateful that I didn’t pursue a medical career for the money.

It is no secret that most newly graduated physicians are in a great deal of financial debt. The most recent report by the AAMC indicates that the average medical student has over $180,000 in student loan debt—not including any debt incurred from their undergraduate education and any other graduate studies prior to entering medical school. For many undergraduates considering a medical career, the thought of accumulating this much debt is incredibly daunting and may often times be a catalyst for pursuing a different career. It is no surprise then that the high costs of attending medical school has at least in part contributed to the physician shortage developing within the United States. Recent predictions highlight that the US may be facing a shortage of over 90,000 physicians by the year 2025. As Obamacare increases healthcare access, this physician deficit will only grow. As such, more and more hospitals are turning to mid-level providers to help alleviate this issue.

Aside from the obvious, how does financial debt harm medical residents and young physicians?  For starters, debt can significantly impact career choices with some specialties being overlooked due to perceived compensation. Additionally, substantial financial debt can play a major role in making unsatisfied residents and physicians feel unable to make a career change. You don’t have to look too far to find someone unsatisfied with clinical practice, and yet too scared to make a change given their financial obligations.

In addition to student loan debt, physician burnout  seems to be a topic discussed more than ever before. A recent editorial published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reported burnout rates ranging from 30% to 65% across specialties, with the highest rates of burnout in critical care (53%) and emergency medicine (52%). Much of this burnout has been attributed to a rise in bureaucratic tasks that often come before patient care and a perceived loss of autonomy. Many physicians feel dissatisfied as their best medical decisions are often overridden by cumbersome regulatory hurdles and hospital policies.

So, is it all worth it? Undeniably, yes.

While it is easy to list off all of the flaws of a career in medicine, it is impossible to describe the joy that comes with delivering a baby for the first time, comforting a family after a successful operation, or being there for someone when they need it most. In the course of their career, a doctor will have thousands of patients trust them with their most valuable assets—their life and the lives of their family members. Being a physician provides one with the chance to build a complex knowledge base and set of skills that can be used to revive a patient from cardiac arrest, remove a brain tumor, or transplant an organ. Working as a physician allows you to serve as a healer, teacher, advocate, and friend to persons from all walks of life. You’ll experience the highest highs and, at times, the lowest lows—but you will finish your career knowing that you pushed yourself to become better for the sake of those around you. At the end of each day, I don’t find myself thinking about the day’s paperwork or the compromises I had to make. No, I find myself proudly thinking of the patient whose grandchildren I helped play with—or the one whose headaches I helped cure.

In the end, don’t become a doctor for the money. Don’t do anything for the money. Become a doctor because you love critical thinking, or because you enjoy improving the lives of those around you, or because you want to be in an ever-changing and constantly stimulating field. If you do it for that, then it will always be worth it.