I am a doctor - a primary care physician. When people as me what being a doctor is like, I always have to pause and think a bit. It is just part of who I am, like being a guy, someone who lives in the southeast, or a musician. Nobody asks me what it is like being a musician; but there is something different being a doctor. When people find out what I do, they treat me differently. Even my family has acted differently toward me since I became a physician.
So, for those who are curious, I will answer the question: What is it like to be a doctor?
Before I do so, let me point out that this is my own experience, which will be different than other physicians. This perspective will certainly share some of what other physicians experience, but there will always be differences. For instance, I suspect the response would be different if I said I was a gynecologist than a PCP - not necessarily bad, but I'd get less requests for advice. Still, I think that is why many folks are drawn to physician blogs - to see into the lives of doctors: the way they think, what they feel, and what is good and bad.
So here is what it is like for me:
- I am always a doctor. When I am at home and hear something medical, I think of it as a physician. Many of life's experiences have some aspect of health or illness involved. You can't watch the news without hearing a medical story. Healthcare is a major issue in the election. Friends are hurt and get sick. Your kids worry about sickness or death. This means that my doctor hat is never far away, which I do not see as being good or bad. I don't try to push my medical perspective, but it ends up being drawn on throughout most days.
- The respect is nice. I would be a liar if I said I did not enjoy people thinking better of me because I am a doctor. This does not go too deep, however, because respect is a very easy thing to lose. People will respond more to your character than to your job. The bad side of the immediate respect is that some people will see having a doctor friend as being to their advantage, and so will try to get into your circle of friends. I hate that. Most of my real friends don't seem to remember I am a doctor most of the time.
- I am still an idiot. Everyone does dumb things, and I seem to have taken on this as a hobby. My family seems to remember this the best. I am sure that my wife trusts my medical mind, but I am also sure sometimes she feels torn when I give her medical advice, asking herself: "What does he know about this? He's just my idiot husband that doesn't put dishes in the dishwasher and leaves stuff around the house. How could someone so smart be so stupid sometimes?"
- I doctor myself. It is impossible not to. It is worse for primary care physicians like myself, who experience many of the problems we treat. If I were a neurosurgeon, I probably wouldn't do it as much (I hope not, at least). But you can't not know what you know. If you know what your symptoms might mean, it is hard to go to your own personal physician and not act like a doctor. I do my best to limit my self-doctoring to minor things (I have yet to do surgery on myself - except for ingrown toenails), but I always fear that my knowledge will get me into trouble some time.
- I am still a brother and son. My brothers and sisters do like having a doctor as a brother so that they can get advice, but they also remember what a twerp I was as a kid. They like my perspective, but the respect will only go so far for someone who used to tattle on them and whose nickname was "Rob the Slob." My parents are probably a little more trusting than my siblings, in that I reflect well on them. They are proud of their son, and if I give them good advice, it makes them more so. But I try hard to direct them back to their physicians.
- Requests for advice don't bother me. I give advice when appropriate, but I never doctor people outside of the office. I am very methodical in my approach to my patients' problems. Serious problems require a disciplined approach to make sure the right diagnosis is made. It is much more likely to miss something when I don't go through my usual routine. Why should my friends and family get worse care just because they know me? I don't do any favors by doctoring outside of my office. Advice? Sure, but there are clear limits, and those close to me understand that. How do I know where to draw that line? Fear. If I feel nervous about my advice, then I send people to their doctor.
- I watch out for family and friends. I know there are some bad doctors out there. Really bad. So when I hear medical experiences of friends and family, my radar is always out to look for bad decisions. Fortunately, I think my parents and siblings have very good physicians, so I don't have to do much second-guessing. If I do have reservations about the care they are getting, I try to be subtle in my approach, having been accosted in the past by children of patients who are physicians.
- I hate splinters. My kids don't see me as a doctor when I have to remove a splinter, they see me as a tyrant who loves inflicting pain. My degree dos not keep them from going ballistic. Trying to remove a splinter from a thrashing foot from a screaming child is one step below going to the dentist (and sometimes more painful).
- I don't talk about any details at home. Some of our friends will come up to my wife and assume she knows I saw them in the office. I simply don't share that kind of thing with her. I do talk about patients, but just don't go into details.
- I don't use my title much. I don't want to be called "doctor" outside of my office, in fact it bugs me when people do it. Being a doctor is my job, and although it is a lot of me, it is not me. I could walk away from it and still be myself.
- I don't get grossed-out easily. Having seen, smelled, and talked about many things I won't go into, I have been largely hardened to it. I talk about poop, pea, and vomit on a daily basis. I see gross rashes in not-fun places regularly. It is just normal. My wife is OK with this, as it makes it easier to clean things up when the cat, dog, or kids have an "accident." I don't relish it, but I don't let it bother me.
- I am obsessive about sleep. The last thing I want is to have a muddy brain when I am in the office. My patients are paying for my decision-making. That means that my mind must be sharp for their sake. Watching Letterman is fun, but not worth harming patients for. Besides, we have a DVR.
- I don't watch medical TV shows. Medicine is not really entertaining for me. There are very few medical shows that I have the patience to watch. I'd rather watch Food Network or ESPN.
- I don't stay awake worrying about patients. I just don't let myself go there. I don't think I could survive if I took that stress home with me. At work I do my best, and hope that is good enough.
- I do stay awake worrying about the business. That's the part of my job I feel least qualified to do. Fortunately for me, my partners have taken a lot of that burden off of my shoulders. Still, the money side of medicine will drive me to retirement far faster than the stress of medical decisions.
Is it good being a doctor? For me it is. The job I do uses my talents and fits my personality. Sometimes I do look longingly at a life without the unique stresses to my job, but the number of things I enjoy will make leaving medicine extremely difficult.
It's just who I am.