Friday, June 17, 2011

To be or not to be (a doctor)

'If you had your time again, would you still have become a doctor?'

    The latter was a question to me a few weeks ago, not long after my article regarding the current NHS political changes. It was an interesting question, and one I have asked myself over many years. Careful consideration always produces the same honest, emphatically positive response. It is true that I can think of other paths I would have liked to travel; other subjects I would have enjoyed reading at university; other areas of the country (or even the world) where I would have enjoyed living. Then again, which of us (regardless of the nature of our upbringing, social status, occupation or interests) hasn't had similar thoughts? Is that not simply a case of 'the other man's grass is always greener'? Ultimately, we have to settle for something which will provide the backbone to our lives. Thirty one years after I first walked into a London medical school, I have no hesitation in saying that I would still chose to become a doctor.

    Of course, 'becoming a doctor' is not quite the same thing as receiving a Bachelor's degree in medicine. There are many years following the five or six spent as a medical student before a doctor can feel that he or she has arrived at the long-sought destination, during which time a junior doctor jumps the various postgraduate hurdles of training posts and postgraduate examinations. Even then, there is the need for life-long dedication to continuing professional development.

    So you may ask why I would do it all again; why, when the training is arduously prolonged, the workload overwhelming, and the political interference with the NHS so frustrating? The answer is because a medical degree can be one of life's most valuable passports. I am sure other professionals would claim similar attributes for their own qualifications. Nonetheless, the intimate involvement in people's lives that the practise of medicine requires can be both spiritually rewarding and tremendously humbling; bringing with it a tremendous sense of worth and satisfaction that few other occupations can easily trump. There is also the chance of a decent standard of living; although not necessarily a fortune to be made. However, the qualification is far more valuable than that. With imagination and determination, a medical degree can open so many opportunities in life that it is difficult to say where the boundaries are. In my view, those opportunities are far more valuable experiences than the acquisition of wealth.

This column is not a place for me to blow my personal trumpet. It is suffice to say that, suitably armed in educational terms, I have ventured into numerous occupational realms that, as a child, I never dreamt I would access. I have also had the pleasure of travelling the world, participating in grand society events and meeting people from all walks of life. For me, a medical degree has been the passport to life's sweet shop, enabling me to fulfil Rudyard Kipling's maxim of filling 'the unforgiving minute' in a kaleidoscope of ways.

So, the answer to the original question is an emphatic 'yes'; I would still become a doctor and, placing medical politics aside, I would encourage others to do so. More importantly, to any young person considering reading medicine, I would exhort you not to consider your degree as the 'be all and end all' of your aspirations. There is a whole world out there; with effort, determination, and imagination it is all yours to sample.

First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Wednesday 11th May 2011

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