Entering a career in medicine is a big decision. It requires a great amount of effort, a substantial time commitment and a lot of hard work and sacrifice.
Medical doctors are held in high regard in society and their work can be uniquely stimulating. This is why many young people are drawn to the medical profession. But while being a physician is special in many ways, it can also become rote and tiring quickly if a person goes into it for the wrong reasons.
Students who are considering medicine should carefully think about what they are looking for in a profession and what aspects of medicine they are most drawn to. They should also ask themselves whether the features of medicine they most gravitate to can be found in other careers and, if so, they should carefully explore those other careers. By doing this, they will make a more informed decision about which field of study to pursue, find the career that is the best match for them and avoid going into medicine for the wrong reasons.
There are several attributes of medicine that can also be found in other professions and that are worth considering.
The Hands-On Aspect
Many specialties in medicine are hands-on. This includes surgery and specialties like interventional radiology, gastroenterology and emergency medicine. In each of these specialties, the nature of the procedures may vary but all require working with one’s hands to diagnose and treat medical problems.
If you are primarily drawn to this manual and technical side of medicine, you may also find podiatry and dentistry to be good fits for you. Podiatry is very surgical and will give you the opportunity to perform a variety of procedures with a focus on the foot and lower leg. Dentistry requires strong manual dexterity, the ability to work in small, confined spaces and a great attentiveness to detail.
If you find yourself drawn to performing procedures as a health care provider but are unsure which path is best for you, consider spending time shadowing different medical specialists, including surgeons, dentists and podiatrists.
Several of our students who were initially considering medicine found themselves drawn to dentistry after they spent time at a dental practice. These students cited the three-dimensional visualization and the artistic creativity that dentistry demands as appealing features of the profession.
A few others were drawn to the dental field because they found dentistry to be quite definitive; the dentist is often able to resolve a problem fully using his or her hands in one sitting after a one- or two-hour procedure.
Other students realized that they in fact did prefer medicine because it would give them the chance to learn about the entire human body and about systemic illness while also performing life-changing procedures.
The Human Connections
This is important in virtually all areas of health care, but it is worth considering what type of human connections you wish to have as a future care provider. While forming strong relationships with patients is essential in a career in medicine, there are other professions where opportunities for such connections may be greater.
In today’s world, the patient-physician encounter is often short, lasting less than 15 minutes. Physicians have to strike a delicate balance between seeing as many patients as need their care and spending sufficient time with each patient. That’s not to say physicians should not strive to spend more time with patients, but they may find themselves constrained by the system in which they work.
Some aspiring premeds are less interested in the science of medicine. Instead, they prefer to sit down with people for extended periods of time, delving deeply into an individual’s social, psychological or health problems. For these individuals, a career in psychology or social work may be a viable alternative to medicine. Psychologists and social workers work with patients and families, helping treat mental health issues like anxiety or depression. They also support patients with various social needs.
Alternatively, nursing and physician assistant studies are great careers that give the practitioner the opportunity to spend significant time with patients at the bedside and be actively involved in the delivery of medical care. Students who find themselves drawn to nursing often cite a passion for spending time more closely with patients and working at the front lines of health care.
The Population Impact
Many of the students we work with who are applying to medical school talk about changing the world and leaving a large-scale impact on the health of society. They frequently cite wanting to address disparities in health care and bridge the gap in access to health care between the rich and poor.
These are worthy goals and physicians can be involved in such efforts. But if these activities are your key driver to pursuing medicine, you may consider a career in public health as an alternative. In clinical practice, your focus is on addressing problems at the individual patient level. By contrast, in public health the work focuses on solving problems and implementing interventions that affect health on a population level.
People who train in public health can go on to careers in research, where they study population-level health problems, or into more practical careers where they work with universities, governments, the private sector or nongovernmental organizations to design and implement programs such as a new model of care delivery for patients with diabetes, or health systems reform such as new approaches to financing health care.
All this said, there are many physicians who wear multiple hats, working to care for patients while also leading public health initiatives. If you are drawn to one of the activities mentioned above, it should not necessarily deter you from pursuing medicine. But it should lead you to ask how much that particular activity draws you to medicine and whether other attributes of medicine are also appealing to you.
If you find that you are drawn to only one feature of medicine and that feature is more predominant in another field, you should consider exploring the other field as an alternative. In the end, you may find a career that makes you happier – or you may emerge with greater conviction that medicine is the right choice for you.