More than Medicine

Medicine is NOT the most important thing.

There, I said it. You see, I struggled a bit with finding the right way to begin this entry, and I came to the realization that sugarcoating things is not going to make things easier. If you’ve pursued medicine for any length of time, you, like I have believed a terrible lie: that medicine is the most important thing. And in some ways, that lie has been useful- it offers motivation in troubled times, it calls us to higher ethical standards, and it provides justification for the many sacrifices we’ve made in pursuing careers (I refuse to use the word lives) as physicians.

I firmly believe that while our curricula venerate the noble calling of medicine- to which there is assuredly some truth, I’m not denying that what we do is noble and good-we as a medical community have bought into this lie wholesale, causing more damage than we may notice at first approximation.

Don’t mistake me, medicine requires nothing less than our best. I’m not saying don’t be driven, don’t work hard. I’m saying that there is more to life than that MD or DO behind your name.

You see, we’ve become so enchanted with the idea that medicine is some illustrious calling that we’ve wrapped our entire identities around this one- important, but singular- aspect of our lives.

It’s no wonder why this happens really; pursuing medicine is time-consuming, draining, and absolutely worth it. What’s more, medicine’s all-encompassing nature has made at least me (and probably you), feel like all you are is a pre-med/medical student/physician. This, my friends, is a dangerous act, you are more than medicine, regardless of how you feel about it.

Here’s a litmus test…

When people ask you “What do you do?”, is your first response to mention your life as a pre-med/med student/physician? I am most assuredly guilty of this: I readily share my status as a medical student when asked that question, and it seems to be the only thing people want to discuss when they find out. But you, me, we are more than just a career choice, even as we spend most of our waking hours studying. We are sons, daughters, spouses, siblings, parents, coaches, bakers, runners, board-game players, lovers, friends. And yet, somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that our identities are so much more than what we do from Monday-Friday (and sometimes on weekends). 

Somehow, the consuming fire that is medicine has caused us to rearrange our priorities so that items 1-10 are all medicine in one form or another. And then when we go home and try to relate to our friends who aren’t in medicine, things are jumbled, stilted, tangled. We’re disinterested oftentimes, and that’s not the fault of our friends-it’s ours for somewhere losing our humanity. Indeed, empirical data suggests that medical students rapidly decline in their ability to experience and express empathy the farther they go along in school-I firmly believe this is because we’ve forgotten that we are in- fact humans first, and physicians second. For the sake of both you and your patients-reclaim your humanity. Realize that medicine is not most important- instead, it’s merely a component of the wonderful, complex, intricate you.

But how we go about doing that is easier said than done- especially when medicine does take up so much of our lives. I’m sorry to say there aren’t any easy roadmaps to regaining your humanity. What I can share are the steps I’ve taken to continue to remind myself that medicine is a priority, not the priority, of my life. For now, I want to leave you with three actionable items that I believe can help us reclaim some of our humanity from the beast known as medicine.

1. Make a list of Priorities

I started this reclamation process by writing out a list of what I think my priorities should be- the 5-10 things that make me, me. For my part, the list looked something like this: Faith, Relationships with Family, Medicine, Relationships with Friends, and self-improvement. Your list probably doesn’t look like mine, nor should it- be specific, be general. The point of the exercise is to carefully ponder where medicine falls, and to allocate your energies (not necessarily your time) accordingly. Carefully consider why each of those things matter, and then put the list you wrote (and yes, write it out) somewhere you will see it regularly as a daily reminder to pursue what matters.

2. Re-frame the “What do you do?” Question

I challenge you, when asked this question, to re-frame it as a question of “What are you passionate about?” Now when people ask me this question, I say, I’m passionate about improving children’s lives. Even that simple shift of focus drastically changed me from thinking of medicine as my sole identity to one where medicine is part of one large passion project. It’ll challenge you to live a life more fully engaged with the world outside of medicine.

3. (Re)Connect with people outside of Medicine

Look, 99.99% of the people on the planet are not physicians, and yet 99.99% of the world will interact with physicians in some way (Source: I made up those stats). As a result of the insular nature of medical school, there will be a strong temptation to ignore the perspectives of non-medical people, or to measure their values as less in some way (more on pride in medicine later). It is to our detriment to ignore those voices. Instead, get involved in your community- even if it’s studying at the local coffee shop or public library instead of school. Listen to people, interact with them. By experiencing the lives of those not intimately involved in medicine, you’ll begin to see how others live out a multi-faceted existence- that they are more than their jobs, more than their relationships, more than their hobbies: they, like you, are the sum of all those parts.

With any luck, such a mentality will rub off on you, and help you to remember that you are more than medicine.