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Better Doctors: A Kaleidoscope View

Submitted by on August 10, 2012 – 8:00 PM

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

Although written in a very different context, I believe these verses by Frost capture the essence of a doctor’s life in the most appropriate of ways possible. Medicine is a profession which a lot of people shy away from because of the immense commitment and hardwork it entails. I’m not taking into account the increasing number of medical schools and the extreme popularity of this field of study with the females, while making the above statement. Those who opt for it, commit an act of valor with the glistening shield of passion to help them through the painstaking journey. This is especially true for that fair proportion of females who choose this job without having any real passion for making a difference, simply because it’s either decreed by parents or they just want a sophisticated laurel to their names.

 

It’s a choice that is literally meant to change our view of life and how we deal with it, with every other day presenting a new challenge altogether. Being a doctor does make all the difference to both sides of the equation – the lives of the doctors and their patients dance along, shifting harmoniously to gratefully accommodate the other party. The relief that washes over a doctor with the knowledge of having saved someone’s life and the sense of accomplishment and pride that follows is priceless. It makes all the difference to our day when our eyelids are drooping with lack of sleep and our bodies are conspiring to betray us any instant. By taking this less traversed road, we really can make all the difference to the world with our ability to help make the lives we touch better.

 

However, as with most choices in life, this one also retains its dark facets. As noble as the job is, the journey of getting there has unfortunately become so precarious that it’s beginning to lose its true colours. Our idea of medicine has taken stereotypical dimensions where students are viewed as sufferers staggering up a sheer mountain, backs bent with the immense burden of responsibility, determination and perseverance. They’re supposed to be masses of limestone whose ability to endure whatever fate might throw at them remains unparalleled and infinite. The moment one steps into med school, they automatically become cloaked by the sheath of invincibility. Perhaps in the hopes of making the students perform to their utmost capacity, the pedestal has been raised so impractically high that it forgets to label doctors as humans. That’s not all that this stereotypical image caters to, however. It’s equally important to consider the idea that studying is the sole activity medical students are expected to engage in. Their presence at family functions are met with horrified gasps at having the audacity to put the books aside, shower and show up. Even more disturbing is the fact that they seem perfectly capable of conversing!

 

All this combined, of course leads to fear that soon enough, the student in question would be thrown out of med school for not complying with the non-documented-yet-glaringly obvious code of conduct. Activities other than burrowing with books, scurrying towards the library and being extremely rude to whoever interrupts that journey towards salvation, disregarding discussions on subjects other than pathology and pharmacology while whining about the pressures of this enviable life are equivalent of blasphemy. Nevertheless, is that all we’re meant to be reduced to? Mindless zombies whose brains forget to work in every situation other than memorizing a book’s language? Is this what we want this prestigious profession to be seen as? How utterly demeaning and disgraceful!

 

If doctors are workaholics and their social life takes a backseat, it’s for a great cause. It gets that way because it’s required of them, someone’s misery and pain that they can empathize with and try to alleviate stands before their leisure of course. But that does not mean that they do not require some time for themselves. That also does not mean that while being a medicine student, one’s life is destined to take the exact same turn. It shouldn’t because they haven’t become a doctor as yet. They don’t have that kind of responsibility on their shoulders. And this is not what we want the doctors of tomorrow to be like – with intellect buried in crevices so deep that you’d have to grope around for it for hours. Numerous hours of continuous memorizing coupled with clinical experience is really all we need to become good doctors? Is this kind of focus that bulldozes all chances of diversified thinking really helpful? At the end of a journey paved with such behavior can we expect to even know the meaning of “thinking out of the box”? Can we even climb to the surface of the box after being suffocated inside for so long, if not jump out of it?

 

According to various neurological studies, I suppose not. It’s a known fact that neurons begin to die in the areas of brain not in use. Healthy, happy minds are ones that engage in a diverse range of activities and hence are stimulated in various regions. Our brains crave diversity and adventure; it’s something our souls need for growth and it gives a sense of freedom which is taken away by the lack of opportunities to engage in any kind of extracurriculars. But it’s presumed, decreed that there is no time in our lives for such foolish and mindless activities because if it’s not studying that we’re doing then we’re definitely wasting time.

 

Any kind of physical activity or extracurriculars in med school are a distant dimension where our brains are forbidden to wander. Shifting focus momentarily and trying to relax is just out of the question. Hence there is no need to provide us with at least a choice. It’s paradoxical that teachers who are doctors themselves do not recognize the damaging effects of this kind of behavior on our personalities. If you mention this to pretty much anyone (even a peer who loves to run to the library with an unwavering sense of responsibility – at least it’s some activity I suppose), they will consider it a divine duty to take the time to unleash ballistic skepticism with eyebrows raised high enough to give you arrhythmia. With this kind of a general environment created in medical institutions, it’s hardly surprising that statistics of burnout cases are soaring among physicians.

 

According to Wikipedia, burnout is a psychological term for the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest. The reason being such a confined view of life where everything ultimately takes the quality of a kaleidoscope painted with a single, mundane colour. In a particular WHO publication, findings state that doctors-in-training with minimal clinical or practice experience were found to have higher levels of burnout. Another study published in the JPMA in August 2010 states that in the test group, 46.07% of the students had anxiety and depression. It also suggests that students should be encouraged to spend adequate time on their social and personal lives and recreational facilities should be provided at the campus.

 

A World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guide to stress management suggests that along with a well-balanced diet, regular exercise and proper sleep, the following factors can help prevent and manage stress: setting realistic goals, planning free time constructively and productively and exercising calm. Hence bluntly put, it’s very important to intercept the hurried pace of our lives, relax and use our brains to think about something other than medicine if we wish to remain completely sane for a while. The idea of a better doctor is someone who doesn’t just prescribe a medicine from memory but also knows how to handle each patient accordingly. The key is to not shackle away all emotion and progress towards depersonalization but use a variety of emotions while dealing with patients. That requires a deeper understanding of behavior, which is easier to attain having a well-rounded personality with a wide perspective of life in general. Leading a balanced life so that our ability to think critically and clearly has not been tainted can equip us with the edge to deal with pressurizing situations optimally.

 

To make someone else healthier, it’s imperative that we take a step ahead and improve our health first; apply our knowledge to ourselves; practice what we preach.

With healthier minds we can actually become better doctors and make all the difference because as George Orwell said, “One mind less, one world less.”

About the Author: Hafsa Mohiuddin is a medical student at Dow Medical College, Karachi, Pakistan. She can be reached at :  [email protected]

About this article: This article is competing for the JPMS International Medical Writing Contest 2012 for the theme: Becoming Better Doctors

To learn more about the contest and to participate in it, follow this link: http://blogs.jpmsonline.com/writing-contest/

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