Why are doctors so unhappy?

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.


106 thoughts on “Why are doctors so unhappy?

  1. Agree (though the validation need not be via religion). This also hits back at the griping I hear from older physicians who are critical of new grads who don’t have the dedication doctors did in the past. Thankfully, new physicians seem to understand the points you make and are living their lives accordingly.
    Having something more important in your life also means that you don’t look for money to be your validation. So, while reimbursement issues may nag at you, it’s not the center of your daily thoughts.
    This post is being copied for my med students just so they don’t think I’m the only one who thinks this way

  2. It’s easy to get lost in the work and to forget about my number one priority in my life. Thanks for your wonderful encouragement.

  3. A good point. Not all doctors are unhappy. Some have found their peace and joy outside of medicine. Unfortunately, I think a great many are unhappy, and need encouragement and a new way to look at their lives.

    I suspect that the younger generation of doctors has a better perspective on how to create sustainable careers. Hopefully, the trend will grow.

    Thanks for your comment, and have a great day!


  4. Great post! Another thing about being a doctor is that we get to meet lots of people from all walks of life–you’d think we could figure this out from the countless patients who enrich our lives, share with us their deepest secrets and fears, express profound gratitude when all we’ve done is our job, and who in general (can) teach us about the meaning of life, if we are open to this. Maybe we need to be more open to life’s lessons from our patients.

  5. “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.”

    How blessed are the people you treat in urgent care, for you realize Who the Great Physician is and from whence the best rewards of all come. We need more like you.

    And if our Lord’s teachings are “fantasies” I don’t want anything else.

  6. Great post! As a non-traditional pre-med student, I was lucky enough to gain some really amazing life experiences before embarking on this journey. I think what happens is that many med students go straight from high school to college to medicine and all they know is books and nothing else. There is soooooooooo much more to life than school and spiritual growth is just as if not more important than growing intellectually, some people don’t seem to get this though then wonder why they are so unhappy. Anyway, whether it be through religion or meditation or yoga, find something that speaks to your inner self, to your spritual side and all will fall into place!!!


  7. Hey,
    I am an aspiring premedical student and this article gives me great encouragement… Not quite sure if i wanted to pursue my goals due to present way healthcare is going in this country, you reminded me what being a doctor is all about..

  8. The main reasons that physicians, including myself, are unhappy with their profession at this time:
    1) They are told what to do by people who have control but no legal responsibility
    2) They are held responsible for processes that are controlled by others
    3) The public expects something for nothing
    4) The lying politicians promise the public something for nothing via multiple unfunded mandates

    Validation of any profession worthwhile will not be sustainable under those conditions.

    Stay healthy.

  9. Hi, great post you got there. 🙂

    I completely agree with you, having an intrinsic sense of spirituality and a deep connection to Jesus is what will truly leave doctors who work hard and long hours with a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.
    But I have a question for you!
    I’m a premed student and I’m still, at this stage considering whether or not I should continue or change to a completely different, and less time consuming degree *gasp*.
    See I was wondering if as a doctor (potentially working in the emergency dept) you will get much free time to do things you like i.e. Christian activities!(or even just go to church if you’re a stressed medical intern working long shifts every day).

    So yeah, I’d love you to email me and let me know how as a medic you balance your time and make time for Christ in your life! I always thought medics had to work a lot and be on call heaps.

    anyway, ..you got my email!

    Stay faithful,

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