“The most important thing is to enjoy your life—to be happy—it’s all that matters.” —Audrey Hepburn
By Peter J. McDonnell, MD
Many, many, many years ago, when I was but a young trainee doing my fellowship year in Corneal and External Diseases, my professor called me into his office on multiple occasions.
“Sit down,” he would say, and I did. “So, are you happy?” he would ask. It struck me as an unusual question at the time.
Today, I wonder if my professor might have been on to something. According to a recent editorial by Rich Joseph, a medical student at Stanford University’s medical school, a lot of medical students and residents simply aren’t happy.
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As a result, I was shocked to learn that a large number of medical students pick up their diplomas at graduation and simply walk away from medicine. According to the article, only 68% of Stanford’s medical students go on to perform a clinical residency. At six other medical schools, even fewer graduates pursue any clinical work.
Given the difficulty that great undergraduates have securing a slot in a U.S. medical school and the need for more well-trained physicians in this country, the fact that about one-third of medical school graduates (at least of some schools) don’t practice comes as a disappointment.
Why is this the case? According to the medical student who wrote the article, the young interns and residents aren’t happy. He says that “hospital cafeterias sell greasy foods, sodas and candy scarfed by sleep-deprived residents to allay mounting stress . . . rooms where residents nap during overnight shifts look and feel like jail cells.”
By contrast, he says, interns at tech companies have “free gourmet meals, ergonomic work stations and top-of-the-line gyms . . . . on-site oil changes, or laundry and dry cleaning . . . . free organic snacks, yoga classes and Uber rides after late nights at the office.”
According to the medical student, former residents warned him: “Get out now. Go into industry.”
What is Joseph’s proposed solution? “Doctors don’t need open vacation policy, arcade rooms or bring-your-pet-to-work days. But we do need healthful food to sustain energy, gyms to stay sharp and relieve stress, re-imagined workspaces that improve communication and time to decompress, laugh, be human. These benefits will make us more whole. And our patients will thanks us.”
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My own view (unencumbered by data one way or the other) is that young ophthalmologists—not having to live and work in hospitals all the time—have much less of the kinds of problems cited by this medical student.
Our work-life balance is fairly reasonable and our patients are very grateful for what we do for them. Pretty much without exception the ophthalmologists I know, while their lives may not be perfect in every way, are overall fairly happy—the state of being that Audrey Hepburn wisely described as our goal. While many top residencies in other fields have trouble filling in the match, ophthalmology training programs have to turn great applicants away every year.
I don’t worry too much about our specialty attracting great medical students. But I do actively discourage my residents from laughing or trying to “be human.”