Becoming a doctor is something that many people aspire towards. It is a profession that elicits curiosity from all walks of life, with parents eager for their children to come home and say "I want to be a doctor."
Such interest amongst the public has led to a flourish of myths and stories about what it means to be a doctor. This article aims to banish some of these myths and provide a more realistic insight into the role of a doctor in the UK.
1. I will be rich
This is probably the most common myth out there. Time and again medical graduates are at the top of the list of university students who earn the most post-graduation. Newspapers love to flaunt headlines about consultants earning six-figure salaries, whilst the word ‘doctor’ is automatically associated with big houses and fast cars.
The Reality There is no doubt that doctors receive a good salary compared to many people in the UK. The starting salary for a graduate from medical school is £27,146 which is a good starting salary, but you must remember that medical graduates spend two extra years in university compared to most other graduates.
Furthermore, twenty-five year olds do not graduate from medical school and enter a six-figure salary straight away. The top salaries that you see in the newspapers are at the top-end for consultants. To get to this point, you need to have gone through at least eight years of training after graduating, with most having gone through much more. These staggering salaries are only reached after more than a decade of training and only by a select few who choose to complement their income with private practice or extra time in management and leadership.
The other point that the general public may not be aware of is just how much it costs to practice as a doctor. Not only is there the annual £390 fee to the General Medical Council which is mandatory if you wish to practice in the UK, there are also (once again, mandatory) postgraduate exams which you have to pay from your own pocket, with most costing over £1000 - and that’s if you manage to pass first time. Added to this is the cost of moving house every two to three years as you are forced to move to the other side of the country to continue your training.
So is it worth it? Ultimately if you go into medicine with your eyes set on a large bank you will be disappointed. Medicine is more than making money; it’s the humanity of the job that makes it worthwhile.
2. I will be respected
This is the myth that everyone thinks of but no one talks about. Time and again doctors come out on top as the profession that the public trust the most. The status of the doctor still rides high in our society. But once you enter the hospital, wearing a stethoscope around your neck isn’t enough to be respected.
The Reality In medicine, as in most walks of life, respect is earned. You do not automatically receive respect the minute you walk out of medical school. After all, hospitals are full of doctors and nothing makes them more special than any other professional working there. Sure, you may find patients less likely to swear at you or shout in your face (although this does happen!) but the idea of the doctor barking out orders is dying its long-awaited death.
In medicine you work in a team. The consultant does not make decisions by him or herself. He takes into account concerns from the nurses, junior doctors, the family and most importantly the patient themselves. Junior doctors work in partnership with nurses, physiotherapists, pharmacists and others to ensure the best care is being delivered. What good is prescribing someone antibiotics for their pneumonia if they haven’t gotten out of bed in two weeks?
What gives you respect is not your title but how you treat others around you. If you plan to go into medicine for respect alone you will be in for a very big shock.
3. I will give up my life
The second most common myth is that doctors are expected to give up their lives for their career. All healthcare staff work unsociable and long hours but there is a belief that doctors are expected to work beyond their hours, giving up birthdays and marriage anniversaries for their job. While this has been the experience of some junior doctors, things are slowly changing for the better.
The Reality More emphasis is now placed on the health and wellbeing of doctors and this has led to a change in the number of hours that doctors are expected to work. Anti-social hours are part of the job but rules are now in place about how many hours you can work in a week, the maximum number of night shifts in a row and the amount of rest required between a night shift and the subsequent day job.
There will be times when you stay late because one of your patients becomes unwell or your admin starts to stack up. But such occurrences should be rare with the recent introduction of ‘Exception Reporting’. This system allows junior doctors in England to report any extra time they spend in their job e.g. staying after 5pm to look after an unwell patient because there aren’t enough staff available on the team. This extra time will be reimbursed either through extra pay or annual leave and can also lead to long-lasting changes such as the recruitment of more staff.
Finally, it’s important to remember that this will not be the rest of your life. There are many specialities in medicine where working 9-5 is the norm and night shifts are rare. The beauty of working as a doctor is that you can work in any area of your choice; some specialities rely more on shift-work while others spend little time on-call. Working into the early hours of the morning or spending your Saturdays in the hospital wards makes up only a small part of your career if you decide that such working patterns are not for you.
4. I will save lives all the time
This is a myth that is perpetuated by the media but also by ourselves. When we study science in high school we want to change people’s lives. We believe we can find the cure for cancer or bring someone back from the dead. Many people go into medicine believing they will change lives. Yes, you will change people’s lives, but not in the way that you think.
Reality We no longer live in the world of the plague or polio; doctors no longer stride down the wards and bring people back with antibiotics alone. Many of the diseases that we see in hospital today are more insidious and chronic in nature. Most have no cure and for many the importance lies not in treatment but prevention and support.
You will spend most of your time not jumping on people’s chests but sitting with patients and their families and discussing their worries and concerns. You will spend your days with fifteen year olds and listen to violence and fear. You will sit next to people twice your age and hold their hand as they give up their independence and tell you about the life they used to lead. Most of your treatment will come not in the shape of an injection or a tablet but in your voice.
It is rare to come across a cardiac arrest and save a life. Heroism is more humble in medicine. To save a life is to make life worth living.
By Dr Gunjan Sharma