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by SixFigureStart | September 09, 2009


From the New York Times: a realistic assessment of life at the business end of the medical profession. The piece profiles a number of aspiring doctors currently studying at the University of Washington, and presents their experiences on summer placements. Or, as the Times piece puts it, the students "took a long look under the hood of the health care system they are about to inherit, and many returned to campus last week with their eyes wide open and their idealism tempered."

Aside from the well-timed analysis of problems within the health care industry--students witnessed first-hand the effects of a chronic shortage of general practitioners and family doctors--some of the comments provided a much-needed honest look at a career path so often glamorized in popular culture. Were we to believe what we see on TV, we'd be forgiven for thinking that being a doctor was all about making bank, making out with nurses, and making yourself look a hero with last-ditch, life-saving interventions. What the article portrays, however, is that doctors who go into primary care choose a career that is likely to leave them burned-out, dealing mainly with health issues related to the obesity epidemic, and earning far less than physicians with more esoteric specialties. Hardly a recruitment poster for the primary care profession.

A shining example of the problems was highlighted in an anecdote concerning a student who followed three pediatricians for the summer. Rather than returning to college feeling that he had found a career path to follow, the student "said he thought that the lifestyle would be too harsh to raise a family, and that it would take many years to pay off his anticipated medical school debt of at least $120,000."

Not that it's all bad news, of course: many students--although not enough--still go into primary care when they qualify. What the Times article suggests, however, is that those that do tend to derive satisfaction from their altruism, rather than the glamor or salary they command. Summing up that point of view is a student who comments that "To feel at the end of the day that I’ve treated a patient and helped them, that would be enough for me."

Clearly, then, the demand for primary care physicians exists--and is likely to increase in the coming years. Whether or not there is much that can be done to make the position more attractive to the type of well-qualified people currently turning their backs upon it, however, is another question entirely--and one that goes to the core of the issues at stake in the health care debate.

--Posted by Phil Stott, Vault Staff Writer


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