Erin A. Strong, a Southern California native, is an MD/MBA student who will graduate in 2015. Her choice to pursue medicine was influenced by experiences abroad in Central America while in high school and in the Caribbean while in college. She also has an interest in public health and understanding how to ensure good health and health care for populations, as well as individual patients. She plans to go on to residency in General Surgery and a career in academic research around minority health issues and health disparities both globally and in the US.
One of the most common answers that I have heard when asking premedical students why they are interested in medicine is that they want to help people. That is a fundamentally important perspective. To paraphrase Dr. Edward Trudeau, who established the tuberculosis sanatorium in the 1800s, the essence of being a doctor is often to treat patients, sometimes to heal, and always to serve.
Even if it is fundamentally important, however, I tell premedical students considering their career choices and applications to medical school that the desire to help people is not, by itself, enough of a reason to become a doctor. There are lots of professions that allow you to help people. Even within medicine and health care, there are a number of different specialized roles – doctors, nurses, physical therapists, technicians, social workers, administrators, researchers, and so many more – all of which necessary in providing the best care to patients.
In my experience, good applicants to medical school understand the specific ways that doctors are able to help people. The strongest applicants have learned these things through experiences that they can share.
As a personal example, I decided to pursue the premedical track in college after experiences I had with short-term medical trips to Central America in high school. Our small group spent time working for a nursery in a Catholic charity hospital. Many of the babies had cleft lip and cleft palate, conditions that are not difficult to treat when the resources are available. The staff that ran the nursery spoke of waiting for the next group of doctors and surgeons that would come for a short-term trip and perform as many surgeries as they could for the babies in that short time. I remember being struck by the ability of the doctors and surgeons to have a profound impact in such a short time, but also by a system that required the babies to wait for their trip rather than receive the treatment when it was needed.
In this case, there would have been a number of ways to “help people.” The role of the doctors and surgeons is perhaps the most clear and straightforward; they would come and perform the surgeries. Still, there were the nurses who would continue to take care of the babies every day. There were the social workers that might help the babies return to their families with all the resources to care for them after their surgeries. There were the hospital administrators that oversaw the running of the hospital and the nursery. There might even be a nonprofit or public health organization to help coordinate the visit for the doctors and surgeons and the resources they would need.
In the end, I decided that I wanted to be a doctor, a decision in which I am still confident today. Out of all of those necessary roles, I preferred the role that the doctors and surgeons played. I would encourage anyone who is considering becoming a doctor to work in a hospital or a medical clinic, to shadow a doctor or surgeon. When you do, pay attention not only to what the doctors are doing, but also to the roles of all the professionals involved. Even if you still decide to become a doctor, medicine and health care are team sports. The better members understand each other and are able to work together, the better the outcome for the patient. Doctors certainly do help people, but they are not the only ones. And they never do it alone.