What If I Have Doubts About Medicine?

Daniel J. Egan, MD

Disclosures

September 11, 2009

Question

I'm really worried that maybe I shouldn't be a doctor. What should I do?

Response from Daniel J. Egan, MD
Associate Attending Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, NY

Don't panic. Although that may be your first instinct after investing years of planning to become a doctor, you should not despair. In fact, despite what you are feeling, there is a good chance that you may still want to be a doctor but need to do some exploring and self-reflection.

Surprisingly, you may not even have a good grasp of what it means to be a doctor. Depending on where you are in your education, you may have observed various doctors in the hospital. The reality, though, is that for most medical specialties, life in the hospital does not truly reflect what day-to-day life will be like later in your career.

My first piece of advice is to gather your thoughts and try to pinpoint what it is that you are feeling. Given the rigorous academic course you pursued to get into medical school, it is unlikely that you have a sudden distaste for the sciences. It could be the overwhelming amount of information that you are expected to retain. It could be the feeling that you have no life beyond medicine. It could be the sense that you have lost touch with reality and the rest of the world. But those are normal feelings, and you should not think that you are alone if you are experiencing them.

However, if you worry that the career may not be right for you, it is time to start addressing those concerns. Medical school is a huge financial investment. Add the residency years to that and you are also talking about a substantial time commitment.

I recommend thinking back to what it was that drew you to medicine in the first place. Was it your pediatrician? Was it a mentor you encountered while doing research? Was it a personal illness or that of a family member? Take time to reflect on what brought you this far. Remove yourself from the constant studying and memorizing -- or if you are in your clinical years, the sleepless on-call nights -- and try to remember your earlier inspiration. You may even want to renew contact with someone who positively influenced you.

In addition, I advise you to speak with your student affairs dean and to try to arrange some different medical experiences. After spending an afternoon in a community physician's office, away from the day-to-day grind, you may feel reinvigorated by the vision of yourself in that role.

If, after taking these steps, you still have doubts about practicing medicine, you do have options. All schools have mechanisms in place to deal with students who are struggling with your exact scenario. Schedule a meeting with your dean. You may want to take a leave of absence to explore other career possibilities or just to get away from the med school environment for a while. Criteria for such arrangements usually are strict, and the decision should not be taken lightly. Remember that any break in your education will follow you on your paper trail (eg, on residency applications and in letters from the dean). Ultimately, you need to do what is right for you.

I hope this helps. As I frequently say, it also helps to talk with students in classes ahead of you. Believe it or not, you are not the first one to have these thoughts, and another student may be able to recommend a peer who can provide some good counsel. Keep your head up, take it one day at a time, and believe that things will work out! Good luck.

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