Over the years that I have been writing to and about physicians, I’ve thought about this question many times: why are doctors so unhappy? The public may not always see it, but physicians do. Practicing emergency medicine is a unique opportunity to witness the general discontent that doctors seem to spew every day. Lots of practitioners in lots of specialties come through our doors, and we catch them day and night, in every possible mood. And it seems that they’re angry, burnt-out, frustrated, tired and all the rest.
All the anger is usually couched in finances. ‘The money isn’t what it used to be. The insurance industry is difficult to deal with. The patients who are uninsured, when I’m on call, are a drain on the practice. The ones with lesser insurance aren’t worth the time. (Medicaid, for example). None of it is worth the money for the time spent.’ The list goes on.
I understand some of these issues. There are some real financial problems in medicine today, with no clear, obvious answers in sight. However, I don’t think finances are the main reason that physicians are unhappy. Not really.
I believe physicians are unhappy because they believed the great lie.
What was it? What was the lie and when did doctors learn it? The lie was this: ‘if you become a doctor, your profession of medicine will be all you need for happiness and fulfillment.’ In short, physicians learned to validate themselves by way of a profession.
The problem is, that will always fail. Medicine is a wonderful profession; and also a job. No job should have, or can have, the power to be everything to any of us. We may lose our jobs. We may be unable to practice medicine. Physicians become physically ill, they have emotional struggles and mental health issues, they are paralyzed in car wrecks, they are sick of the pain and death they see and want to go and become stone masons. Medicine is too tenuous a thing to hold onto as a reason for being.
But we learn it in pre-med and medical school. We learn it from parents and friends. ‘Oh, honey, if you can learn to be a doctor, you’ll help so many people. Won’t that be wonderful? And you’ll make a lot of money too!’ ‘Dude, you’ll be stinking rich and have women all over you! Go for it!’ ‘It’s hard, son, but everything good is hard. And once you become a doctor, you’ll be set for life.’ On and on go the encouragements. But they only have grains of truth.
You can help people, but may forget to help yourself and your own family. You’ll make lots of money; and spend lots of money, and work quite hard for what you make. You usually won’t be filthy rich, and women who understand what the medical life means will leave you, or never come near you…after all you’ll be an enormous academic geek. (The same sort of thing goes for women on the path. Female pre-medical and medical students, and female physicians, are often intimidating to lesser men.)
The point is this: doctors are unhappy and dissatisfied because they bought and believed the lie and tried to live by it. But only in finding other validation and meaning can they find the satisfaction that they so desperately desire.
What doctors need is not a profession, but a profession of faith! As a Christian physician, I know that I am defined by my adoption into the family of God. I am defined by my relationship to Jesus the Christ. Money may come and go, professions may come and go, my health and life may vanish like a drug seeker’s billing address, but none of it defines me. For that I look to Jesus who is forever unchanged, and in whom I am forever safe and accepted.
If I’m sued, he still loves me. If I make a mistake, he still loves me. If I quit medicine, he still loves me. If I die, I get to see him face to face.
That’s validation, my dear medical brothers and sisters. You can call me a nutty evangelical, and you can say I’m over-simplifying it all. You don’t even have to believe any of it. But wouldn’t it be nice if you could? You may say it’s all a myth, a fantasy. But wouldn’t it be nice if it were true? Even for a fantasy, it sounds pretty good.
I’ll say it again. Doctors need validation somewhere besides medicine.
I know where I find mine. I hope everyone else finds their own; somewhere other than walking the corridors of a hospital in a white coat, hoping desperately for quitting time.