I had the good fortune to talk to some pre-med students this week.  I went with my partner, Dr. Bill Chiles, to a meeting of Alpha Epsilon Delta, the pre-health professions honorary, at Clemson University.  We talked to them about medical school, residency, practice and the life of a physician.

They were all ears.  It’s refreshing to see the bright-eyed wonder on their faces, the hope, the fascination.  They want so much to enter the world of medicine; they’re enduring organic chemistry, physics, engineering and so many other challenges just to be able to make the cut and get a coveted medical school slot.

Pre-med students like to hear from us.  And what they like to hear is encouragement and honesty.  What I’m afraid they hear, too often, is anger and frustration couched in advice.  ‘No, I wouldn’t be a doctor, no way!  Go into law, that’s where the money is! The $#^$@ lawyers have all the money now!  Be something else!’

Bill and I tried to be honest with them.  Medicine, as a career, is dangerous.  Physicians die of assaults, car wrecks and infectious diseases.  Medicine is exhausting.  Bill says ‘while you’re in college, do this.  One day, when you don’t have too much to do the next day, go to bed and set your alarm to go off every two hours or so.  And when it does, get up, take a walk, do a math problem, do something that will challenge your mind.  That’s what it’s like to be on call in medical school and residency.’

We talked about challenges to family life, about money, about government and about what may happen to medicine, depending on the outcome of the election.  Of course, lacking crystal balls (you know what I mean, so stop snickering), we really don’t know.  But we tried to give them an honest assessment of the future.

Guess what?  They’re still excited.  It’s the thing about a dream when you’re young.  There’s no squashing it.  And that’s good.  Because we’re all going to need what the young have to offer.  We’ll need doctors because medicine is wearing us out and making us have chest pain with every new Medicare and Joint Commission regulation.  We’ll need attorneys because, contrary to popular belief, trial lawyers do not live forever and are not all allied to the prince of darkness.  Besides, everyone wants a good lawyer on their own side…even doctors.  We’ll need nurses and dentists, mechanics, contractors and plumbers.  It also appears we will continue to need Marines, police officers, fire-fighters and F-22 pilots who can’t be dissuaded by the mention of risk.

When we talk to potential physicians, we should be careful.  We have to offer them honest assessments of the trouble, effort, battles and shear weight of misery that medical practice can offer these days.  But we ought to remember the joys.  We have to tell them what it feels like to save life, to bring life into the world, to know something amazing, and to know how to fix human misery.  We need to tell them that it’s a job that will, as far as we can see, always offer employment.  A precious thing indeed in a changing economy.

So, the next time a fresh-faced, eager young person (or older person) says, ‘I’m thinking of going to medical school,’ don’t unleash a tirade of profanity and tell them to get a clue.  Sigh deeply if you must, and give them an honest, and balanced, picture of what it means to be a doctor.

And remember, not only will we need physicians ourselves, so will our children and grandchildren.  And for that reason alone, we should keep encouraging the best and brightest to consider the path we’ve been stumbling down all these weary years.

Frankly, it hasn’t been all bad, has it?


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