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Being a Doctor, Pros, Cons and What It's Really Like. The Process of Becoming a Doctor

For centuries, the physician has been one of the most respected members of society. Shamans of indigenous tribes were revered for their knowledge of the healing arts. The family doctor often treated patients for their entire lives and was called upon not only to assist in births and deaths, but for advice and guidance as well. That seems to be changing somewhat in the litigious society of today.

The Cons of Being a Doctor:

Malpractice insurance has skyrocketed in the wake of many lawsuits aimed at specific physicians, hospitals, and the field of medicine in general. Distraught families no longer blame God or fate for the death or disability of loved ones, they blame the doctors who treat them. As in any profession, there are certainly some who deserve such blame. However, careful, caring physicians are more and more often finding themselves fighting legal battles for their right to continue practicing. In what other profession can a simple mistake cost a life? Doctors are not heartless, their failures weigh heavily on them. Yet neither are they perfect, and often we expect too much from them.

Today you may find an Ophthalmologist selling cars, or a Neurologist writing textbooks. Hardest hit may be the specialty of OB/GYN, whose malpractice insurance can be upwards of $200,000 per year. Many good doctors are leaving the profession, citing rising malpractice costs and a lack of respect from their patients. Pressure from powerful HMO's and the public to keep costs to a minimum is greatly decreasing the earning potential of solo practitioners. Consequently they must work longer hours and see more patients to make ends meet. One Family Practice physician recently complained that her net take-home pay after all expenses (including malpractice and student loans) is approximately $37,000 per year. Less than her husband's salary as a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy. You find many doctors leaving their practices for jobs with pharmaceutical companies, hospital administration, and research. Positions with high salaries, better work hours, and less stress.

The Pros of Being a Doctor:

Despite the changes taking place in the profession, applications to medical schools rose to an all-time high in the late 1980's and early 1990's and while they have stabilized in the last ten years, schools still receive 3 to 5 times more applicants than they have positions for. Certainly one reason for this is that medicine is still among the highest paying and most prestigious professions in the country. The following chart shows the average salaries of US physicians:

Median net income in US dollars of M.D.s after expenses in 1998, according to the American Medical Association:
All physicians $160,000
Surgery $240,000
Radiology $230,000
Anesthesiology $210,000
Obstetrics/gynecology $200,000
Emergency medicine $184,000
Pathology $184,000
General internal medicine $140,000
General/Family practice $130,000
Psychiatry $130,000
Pediatrics $126,000

While U.S. physicians' incomes vary based on their specialty and on their location, they still averaged about $160,000 a year in 2007.* Physician incomes/salaries remain among the highest of all professions.

However, if you are only interested in the money, you should look for another field. MBA's have a higher entry level salary and obtain their credentials much more easily. If money is your motivating factor, you probably won't get past the med school interview, and if you do, residency will probably wash you out.

As a physician you will enjoy not only monetary rewards, but humanistic rewards which are priceless. We can all imagine how painful it must be to tell a family that their loved one has just died, but can you imagine how amazing it must feel to repair the defective heart of a tiny baby? Or to remove a malignant tumor from the brain of a young mother? Or to help an injured man to walk again, thereby giving him the gift of dignity, the ability to support his family, and the freedom to play catch with his son.

The Calling:

Many people think of medicine as a "calling" much like priesthood. To some extent this may certainly be true. You must have a great desire to become a physician. A driving passion to help people, to be challenged, and to learn throughout your life. You will sacrifice your time and energy for the care of your patients, often forsaking your family and yourself. Most doctors will tell you they can't imagine doing anything else. Being a doctor is simply who they are, not just what they do. The desire to help others a need within them, like breathing, or hunger.

Once you have made the decision to become a doctor, you must pursue it whole-heartedly. Demystifying the process and the profession is only the first step. The rest is up to you.

"It concerns us to know the purposes we seek in life, for then, like archers aiming at a definite mark, we shall be more likely to attain what we desire." -- Aristotle

* Medical Group Management Association, (2008) Physician Compensation and Production Survey: 2008 Report Based on 2007 Data. Englewood, Colo.: MGMA.

Articles in this series:

  • Becoming a Doctor Are you trying to decide whether becoming a doctor is right for you? Take a realistic look at what it takes to get there.
  • Steps to Become a Doctor Premed Planning - The timeline and steps to become a doctor, including undergraduate studies, gaining experience in the medical industry and taking the MCAT.
  • Applying to Medical School Ready to apply to medical school? Be prepared for the application process and for medical school interviews.
  • How to Become a Doctor What to Expect in Medical School - Medical school curriculum, USMLE, and the cost of medical school.
  • NRMP and Medical Residency What is residency for doctors? Medical Residency, ERAS, NRMP, the Residency Match and the Scramble - The process of getting matched with a medical residency position, and the medical resident's role.
  • Being a Doctor What It's Like to be a Doctor.

Visit all the MomMD premed resources for becoming a doctor.

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