Dr. Brennan Kruszewski is a practicing internist and primary care physician in Beachwood, Ohio. He graduated from Emory University School of Medicine in 2018, and recently completed his residency in Internal Medicine at University Hospitals/Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He enjoys writing about a variety of medical topics, including his time in academic medicine and how to succeed as a young physician. In his spare time, he is an avid cyclist, lover of classical literature, and choral singer. LinkedIn
What does it mean to be a doctor? When people think about doctors, they might have some Hollywood-conjured image of a gleaming white coat, winning smile, and a fancy sports car. What they often don’t think about is the reality of years of training, interrupted sleep, and the increasing burden of student loan debt. While the doctor-patient relationship of old is still at the core of being a doctor, the pressures of seeing more patients every hour, an increasingly complex medical system, and increasingly fragmented medical care threaten to chip away at that bond. During a physician’s training, when the hours are long, the pay is low, and the days seem to drag on endlessly, most trainees will wonder if becoming a doctor is worth it at all. It’s a question worth answering whether you’re just considering medical school or whether you’ve been practicing for several years and wonder if a change is right for you.
Becoming a doctor is a lot like becoming a different person. You’ll learn things you never knew before, have access to information that some people will trust no one else with, and will be quite literally be responsible for people’s lives on a daily basis. Few other professions can match the intimacy of the doctor-patient relationship. This responsibility has its privileges, but many doctors also take work home with them and carry the stories of their patients throughout their lives. This is not a burden to be taken on lightly. Becoming a doctor will change you as a person – whether you like it or not.
Is Becoming a Doctor Worth It?
The financial aspect
To answer this question, we should remind ourselves what we mean by “worth it.” Financially, many people think that becoming a doctor is the pathway to a high income and job security. However, doctors must take out large amounts of student loans and years of delayed gratification during the undergraduate years, medical school, and residency or fellowship. Before earning a high salary, you’ll be a decade behind your peers financially if you decide to go to medical school – perhaps longer if you decide to subspecialize. The hours are also a consideration: for most specialties, some combination of after-hours calls and emergencies means that you may never be truly “off the clock.”
You’re never truly “off the clock”
Even in specialties where there are set hours, expect your friends and family to reach out to you as the expert on all things medical. From the moment you start medical school, you’ll get texts from friends about their weird rashes, phone calls from your cousin about their sore throat, or unsolicited (and sometimes lengthy!) conversations from acquaintances about their medical issues if they happen to find out what it is you do for a living. You may not even be safe on vacation! On my first vacation after residency, there was a medical emergency on my flight that required my assistance. You never know when you’ll be called on to use your training, even when you’re trying to take some well-earned time to relax.
They say medicine is not just a job, but a calling
On the other hand, there’s nothing to me that quite measures up to the ability to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness and disease. The degree of trust that people place in their doctor is simply beyond compare. People will come to you to express their greatest fears, and you will have the unique ability to address them. They present to you their hurts and sorrows, and you will have the chance to offer them comfort, and in many cases, relief. There is little argument that this element of being a doctor will in all likelihood earn you a comfortable salary, respect in your community, and a chance to make a deep, personal impact on the lives of your patients. But it is the human connections you make in medicine that ultimately make the profession worth it. Many people consider medicine to be a calling, not simply a job. To those people, the rewards of daily work typically outweigh the number of hours and lost compensation of residency.
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Is Medical School Worth It?
One of the greatest challenges in becoming a physician is the years of delayed gratification through medical school and residency training. Before you can practice as you want, you will need to spend years training with low pay and long hours. While your friends from college will be making money, advancing in their careers, buying homes, and starting families, you will be studying for and taking exams, flying across the country for residency interviews, and working night shifts or 80 hour weeks. This takes both a physical and emotional toll on many aspiring doctors.
Medical school can be a particularly difficult time for students when their expectations do not line up with reality. If you came into medical school with the expectation of treating patients right away, you might be disappointed when the majority of your time is spent in the classroom, library, or behind a laptop studying for high-stakes board exams. If this is your situation, the good news is that residency is just around the corner and that more patient interaction and autonomy in clinical decision-making will come with time. If you’re finding that even the promise of more autonomy or more time spent with patients isn’t enough to motivate you, it might be time to consider a career change.
Why Being a Doctor Is Not Worth It: Other Options
Some students decide to become a doctor assuming that it is the only career path for someone who likes science and wants to help people. If these are your only reasons for considering a career in medicine, being a doctor might not be worth it. Today, many careers require less training and debt and allow you to help people sooner and on a larger scale than medical school. With the increase in popularity of physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and other allied health professions programs, there are many other opportunities to care for people in a medical setting that do not require a physician’s degree. On the non-clinical side, master’s programs in clinical informatics or public health allow you to use science to help people on a population level at a scale that most doctors can only dream of. None of these options require you to become a doctor and are great ways to make an impact.
A high salary is a particularly poor reason to go to medical school. If money is your primary motivation, consider that hospital CEOs, not doctors, are the top earners in healthcare and that only 5% of hospital administrators are physicians. To make matters worse, over 50% of physicians suffer from burnout, a rate that is much higher than other professions. While an undergraduate computer science major may make six figures in their first year on the job after college, a doctor will not make this much money until at least 7 years after they finish undergrad, assuming they attend a four-year medical school immediately after they graduate college, and their residency program lasts only 3 years. If you want to become a more specialized doctor or a surgeon, you will almost certainly have to wait longer to earn that same six-figure salary. This could put your earnings potential almost 10 years behind that of your peers – not counting the fact that they have likely been receiving bonuses or promotions during that time. Even though your salary could catch up, you might have student loans to repay, setting you back even further.
Regretting becoming a doctor
Even the most dedicated students will have moments in which they regret becoming a doctor. It might come the first time when you have to deliver difficult news to a patient. Or the first time a patient becomes upset or yells at you for something that might have been out of your control. It can happen after losing a patient, after making a mistake, after getting sued, or after being woken up by a page in the middle of the night for the fifth night in a row. While it’s normal to sometimes regret the decision to become a doctor, the benefits of knowing that I have the chance to impact people’s lives on a day-to-day basis outweigh the negatives to me. Some people do decide long after the fact that being a doctor isn’t for them. That’s okay too! There are a variety of ways to transition to a non-clinical career, to cut back on hours, or practice in a way that cuts down on burnout and helps you enjoy medicine again.
There is an old saying that if you can see yourself becoming anything but a doctor, you should choose something else.
As for me, I couldn’t see my life being complete without going into medicine. Despite all the late nights, hours spent studying, and deferred gratification, it’s still a privilege to care for my patients. While I have tough days, the motivation of being a patient’s go-to person for anything health-related that happens in their life is as much of a thrill to me as the day I first started to see patients in medical school. Becoming a key part of someone’s life is always something I will see as sacred and special – something that I could have never had without becoming a doctor.
And that is most definitely worth it.