The million do$$ar question:
What do you think your voice and sense of social responsibility is as a physician-in-training?
A first year medical student’s answer:
I would not say that I stumbled into medicine. It requires too much hard work to be an accident. But it was an unanticipated deviation from the original career path I had started down. The latter was a life in the non-profit world, centered around social justice with a focus on women’s international human rights. My move towards medicine was not a break from this work, but rather an opportunity to address it from another direction. I believe that healthcare, as a basic human right, is foundational to any fight for justice. As such, I came to see how the practice of medicine is the use of set tools to effect tangible change.
I love the notion medicine as a practice of the art of healing. It is a precarious balance of holding compassion in one hand and objective decision-making in the other; it is a creativity to read between the lines, hear between the breaths, and feel the silence of emotions between words. Much of the art cannot be taught in a textbook, or a lecture, but from the humility of failing over and over and over again in the hopes that maybe next time you will get it right.
Amidst these lessons, our training places us at a unique intersection of our hippocratic oath, legal mandates, and our own moral codes. Sometimes these align, sometimes they stand in staunch opposition. Sometimes we must suspend our personal beliefs at the door to provide the best care for a patient, but to also not forgetting to to pick them up on our way out.
It is an difficult role for it requires numerous character changes: a patients’ confidant at the bedside, an advisor to a business, an expert at a court hearing, as well as a friend, a lover, a caregiver, a family member, and an ordinary citizen. In choosing this career, one necessarily chooses involvement in issues they have never experienced and is confronted with questions they have never had to answer. Sometimes they are small, like helping a patient figure out transportation options to ensure they make their next appointment, or finding a free clinic for an uninsured patient to get affordable prescription medication. Sometimes they are much larger, like how to respect a family’s religious requirements for burial while also complying with state mandated autopsy orders or organ donations.
As physicians-in-training, we are no longer isolated to the problems and injustices that impact us personally. When we commit ourselves to the care of a patient, we must seek to address their well-being. Our white coats with embroidered names place us in a unique social hierarchy that values our voices. While we cannot take on every struggle nor pick every fight, we can, and should, advocate for our patients. To do so it to take on someone else’s struggle as our own. And when we speak out from a truth rooted in their stories, whether at an institutional, local, or national level, we help amplify their voices, moving them beyond to walls of the exam room.
This work is not about being a do-gooder, or completing a class requirement; it is about committing to a job that requires more than diagnostic skills and memorization of medications. As we discover our strengths and weaknesses, we learn better what tools are available, figuring out how and when to use them. And it is in this creative process that perhaps we will master the art of practicing medicine.