Will Physician Burnout Lead to Fewer Medical Students?

As physician burnout becomes more widespread, it’s time to think about the future. Do you have people asking you if you would be a doctor again?

Not a week goes by without me being asked by either a medical student or a practicing physician:

Do you recommend medicine to others? Or is physician burnout too rampant, too overwhelming, too all-consuming?

That’s one of those super loaded questions. And it doesn’t have an easy answer.

Here’s what I tell them:

Nine out of ten doctors state that they would not recommend their profession to others. Add to that, by the year 2020, there will be 90,000 too few physicians in the U.S.

It’s a mixed bag when I ask colleagues if they are encouraging their children to grow up to be doctors. The discussions around the scrub sink in the operating room are lively, with pros and cons that would make your head spin.

In my talks around the country to medical students, residents and practicing physicians, I try to be honest. When I coach residents and colleagues who are knee-deep in burnout, we look at the options for staying in medicine and for leaving. They ask me what to do. Sometimes I want to say, “Ask your mom.”

Instead, I try to give the answer that I wish I would have had when I was in the trenches, in organic chemistry, trying to decide exactly how much I really wanted to be a physician.

When my colleagues and I are discussing what to tell the children, the nieces, the nephews, it makes me think about that ole country song, made famous by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”.

In that country classic, the talk is all about the hard life of a cowboy. And the singer suggests, “Let ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such.”

Now, I love a good ole country song as much as the next gal. Although you’ll find my radio tuned to alternative rock most days, it’s hard to get the Texas out of a girl who was born in Amarillo and did a lot of medical training in Texas, where they’ve been known to wear cowboy boots in the operating room.

So, I hope you’all will pardon me while I suggest a new title for this song: “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Doctors”.

While doctoring may not involve the hard life of a cowboy, it certainly has its challenges. And those challenges are becoming even more apparent as our healthcare system changes.

But there are ways to douse that flame of physician burnout. You just have to know what you’re getting into, as a medical student. You have to know what you’re recommending as a parent, an aunt or an uncle.

I want to make sure that the oft-held perception of doctors living on easy street, of “raking in the dough” and playing golf every Wednesday. . . well, Mammas, it’s time to get real.

Don’t let your babies grow up to be doctors if you want their lives to be cushy and problem-free.

Don’t let your babies grow up to be doctors if you think they will always love their job.

Don’t let your babies grow up to be doctors if you envision them having a wonderful high-end life.

But, Mammas. If you really love your babies. And I’m sure you do. . . Here’s what you need to know as you raise those youngsters . . .

Let ‘em be doctors if you want them to be proud every day of what they can do to help another person. Sometimes in the smallest way. Sometimes in a huge, life-saving way.

Let ‘em be doctors if you want them to know the deepest happiness of caring for someone, being empathetic and truly altruistic.

Let ‘em be doctors if you are willing to accept that they will sometimes be in the depths of despair: at an awful prognosis for their patient; at the injustice of a system that will deny surgery for cancer; at the fatigue and hopelessness that can envelop them after several days of non-stop giving.

Let ‘em be doctors if you know that your special child, your most precious one can grow up and help guide us through the maddening maze of the medical system and find a way to unite patients and doctors, once again, to work together for healing.

Please share in the comments below what you would tell someone who asked the question: Do you recommend medicine to others?



CATEGORIES: Blog on January 27, 2015 by Starla Fitch, M.D.

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5 thoughts on “Will Physician Burnout Lead to Fewer Medical Students?

  1. Dr.Hariram

    Dear Starla,
    Thanks for the message. We are all sailing in the same boat.
    Medical practice used to be a pleasure, not any more. It is pressure from all sources.Tremendous demand from patients and very high expectations bring in lot of pressure. One should accept it boldly and go on. As long as you are honest in the profession and practice with ethics and principles, things should be alright.
    Thanks once again, Starla for the wonderful thoughts.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Dear Dr. Hariram,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Ethical behavior should guide us all, for sure. Medicine is changing but we can change a bit with it, and continue to find joy in our practice.
      Take care, my friend.

  2. Jamie

    Great article. I am a 3rd year medical student and not one month in my medical career has gone by without the thought of quitting. Yes, school is hard but what gets me down the most are the truly miserable people that try to bring me down with words or negativity. Teachers and deans get me down by saying how my scores aren’t top line for certain fields. Residents and preceptors on rotations get me down by showing how much they hate their jobs in medicine and tell me how the politics of medicine are changing for the worse. Other people I come across, friends, family or acquaintances who have no experience in the career tell me how hard I will have to work for little pay. Yet, the good days of my rotations where I make someone feel better or make then smile for just a few minutes makes this all worth while. Although I still don’t know what field I want to go into, I know I want to do this career for the exact reasons you stated above. Thank you for the article!

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Dear Jamie,
      Thanks so much for writing. You are not alone. I hear similar stories every week from your fellow med students. It helps to be surrounded by like-minded folks, so look to your classmates, and our online community here, for support. We would have blinders on not to see that changes are everywhere in medicine. But, the soul of medicine, the love of the art of medicine cannot be taken away. My mentor of 20 years ago would say, “if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” Take each day at a time, dear Jamie. As you fall asleep every night, just think of one thing that you’re grateful for (we can all name five things that went poorly, trust me!). And please keep in touch.

  3. Jane Zendarski

    I appreciate your column very much and I started reading your book. I understand a lot of the negativity in medicine is our response to it, but it is a dysfunctional system. What can we do to change it? I was dismayed about the music in the surgical area being taken away in your health system and I was equally dismayed that there was no mention of a challenge to the system for taking it away.


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