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- Anthony N. DeMaria, MD, MACC, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of the American College of Cardiology∗ ()
- ↵∗Address correspondence to:
Dr. Anthony N. DeMaria, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 3655 Nobel Drive, Suite 630, San Diego, California 92112
The words and the context have been different, but the intent is always the same. For some reason, the last several years have brought a torrent of inquiries as to whether I would choose to enter the field of medicine again. Often the question is direct: “Would you go to medical school if you had it to do over again?” Sometimes it is a bit indirect: “Would you advise your son or daughter to go into medicine?” On occasion it is only inferred: “I bet you are anxious to retire and get out of the regulatory mess?” Regardless of the form, the implication is always identical: the practice of medicine has become unrewarding and frustrating, doctors generally feel embattled, and life would have been much more satisfying and happy in some other profession/field.
I am not sure that has created the impression that the practice of medicine is something to be endured. Nevertheless, I can think of a number of factors that have probably contributed to the belief. Years ago, when confronted with increasing healthcare expenditures, considerable attention was focused upon the need for cost-efficiency in medicine. Inherent in this focus was the concept that medical care, at least in the United States, might involve overutilization, might not deliver value for the money, and, in fact, could be influenced by incentives other than purely optimal patient care. Conditions such as geographic variation in the performance of various medical procedures seemed to provide evidence of inappropriate utilization. The once-lofty position in which physicians were held in society began to erode, and patients were urged to question their physician and to seek additional opinions.
The need to restrain expenditures led to a number of initiatives aimed at controlling the use of and the reimbursement for diagnostic and therapeutic services. This effort was perhaps best epitomized by the growth of managed care, which was generally perceived as an encroachment upon the independence of physicians by the placement of gatekeepers. The public quickly became aware that their doctors frequently had to seek pre-approval for services and often had to justify management decisions to individuals with lesser training, no in-depth knowledge of the patient, and an incentive to decline authorization. For some, even the logical effort to develop and implement guidelines so as to ensure evidence-based medicine conveyed a negative image of the changing environment of clinical care. Guidelines were often envisioned as “cookbook medicine,” and the attempt to apply data obtained in large groups to individual patients was viewed as a constraint upon the ability of physicians to employ clinical judgment.
Most recently, a somewhat pessimistic view of the future of medical practice has been engendered by the Affordable Care Act, generally known as “Obamacare.” Clearly, no one knows how the implementation of this legislation will play out in the future or what benefits or unintended adverse consequences will accrue to health care in the United States. In addition, few will deny that our healthcare system is in need of modification and that it is incumbent upon us to provide insurance to all of our citizens. However, it is commonly assumed that the costs of providing insurance to those without current coverage will be extracted from funds currently directed to hospitals and practitioners. It is feared that payments will diminish, that panels will be empowered to determine optimal and therefore reimbursable practice patterns, and that additional rules will be imposed upon how physicians can practice. When these anxieties are expressed in public, it is not surprising that the image conveyed is that of the embattled doctor.
The above conditions would be enough to create the appearance of stress and concern on the part of almost any profession. However, they are considerably amplified when applied to medicine. It is widely accepted that the practice of medicine is the most demanding vocation that exists. Many years of schooling and training testify to the investment in time and money that is devoted to becoming a doctor. Long hours, as well as nights and weekends on duty or on call bear evidence to the sacrifice entailed in being a physician. Added to that is the tension inherent in making decisions that can affect the quality and length of an individual's life. Therefore, it is not surprising that, in light of the sacrifices made for their profession, any sense of dissatisfaction or frustration with clinical practice would be perceived by the public as particularly disturbing to doctors. Stated another way, the degree of unhappiness should be proportional to the magnitude of the effort to achieve one's goal. Hence, the frequent preface: “if you had it to do all over again.”
Like most physicians, I have occasionally experienced frustration and dissatisfaction with some of the changes that have been occurring in medicine. Nevertheless, when asked whether I would do it again or advise my child to do so, my answer has always been the same. Personally, I would never change a thing. I would go into medicine again in a heartbeat, and I would vigorously encourage my children to as well if they were so inclined. I cannot think of a superior profession or a better career. Medicine is intellectually challenging, is always evolving, and entails work that is really meaningful. There is no more valuable service that one can provide to a fellow human being than to restore his or her health or reduce any suffering. It is true that our financial compensation may be decreasing, but as a group, physicians are among the highest wage earners in society. Moreover, in my opinion, there is no more valuable payoff than the heartfelt thanks of a grateful patient.
Given the increasing frequency with which the question has been posed recently, and the well-publicized changes in healthcare delivery that continue to be implemented, I fully expect to be asked “if I would do it again” on a regular basis. With a similar degree of certainty, I am sure that my answer will remain the same. As the years have gone on, I have come to the realization that my experience as a physician has been even better than I thought it would be when I aspired to the profession. Whether taking care of an individual patient, doing population health, or carrying out a research project, I have found the medical profession to be enormously satisfying and rewarding. I feel so grateful to have had the chance to spend my career in this field. Frankly, I suspect that I would go to work if they did not pay me, and there are not many individuals who can make that statement.
- American College of Cardiology Foundation