Growing up, I always wanted to be a doctor. I had my black doctor’s bag, and I played doctor in the neighborhood. My collection of stuffed animals had so many stitched-up surgical scars that the toys could barely contain their stuffing. I saw the family doctor virtually every month, needing shots for bad allergies, and I was in awe of him, his tools, and his book-filled office! I remember marveling that there was no way I would ever be able to read that many books. There were no physicians in my blue-collar family, and we were conditioned to believe that doctors were all-knowing and deserved nearly unequivocal respect.
Doctors have incredible responsibility. They take care of people at the worst times of their lives. Physicians weigh an enormous amount of information and make decisions that impact patients’ health and welfare, and patients place immense trust in their doctors to do the right thing. In some cases, doctor-patient interactions involve violating the patient in the most personal way possible. When patients go under general anesthesia, they trust the physicians and entire operative team to bring them back to consciousness. There are few ways to risk more personally violating individuals—or having greater responsibility toward them—than when exercising our sacred duty to ensure patients emerge safely from anesthesia and successfully from their surgeries. This is a profound, frequently challenging, and very stressful responsibility.
Doctors work very hard and train a long time to be able to practice medicine. I was in medical school for four years, residency for seven years—which included two years of research—and one year of fellowship. That was 12 years of training before I was able to see a patient independently. It also requires huge personal sacrifice: surgical residency involves long, grueling hours of work. In addition, there is substantial opportunity cost; I could have been doing something else over the course of those 12 years. Finally, there’s the educational debt. I graduated from medical school with more than $200,000 of debt, and my wife and I both still pay student loans. The average physician incurs almost $170,000 in medical education debt, with nearly 20 percent of graduates having more than $250,000.1
With these sacrifices, however, come great rewards. By their title alone, physicians are afforded tremendous respect and stature, and very few U.S. physicians are suffering financially. Becoming a doctor essentially guarantees lifetime employment at a reasonable salary—I say reasonable because while some specialties are very highly compensated, others such as primary pediatrics and adult primary care are not. With the United States and the world facing a physician shortage, doctors will likely never be under threat of unemployment.
Patients recognize the sacrifice physicians make and hold them in very high esteem. Physicians remain among the most respected and trusted occupations in the United States.2 A recent Gallup poll ranked medical doctors the fourth most honest ...