Medicine: Job or Calling

Nothing bares the soul of medicine more than a discussion about whether being a physician is a job or a calling.

And nothing demonstrated this better than what occurred earlier this week when a US physician with 44,000 plus followers on Twitter posted the following series of tweets, thereby igniting the day’s health care Twitter firestorm:

Many if not most of the hundreds of responses to these tweets from other physicians expressed outrage or disappointment with the views expressed. To quote a couple:

  • I’m sorry I don’t buy this at all. I’m fulfilled when I have a healthy balance between my work, my home life and my pastimes. Doctors staying late and long after others have left would actually signal to me …that they might be in difficulty.
  • In my experience it’s the people who set themselves on fire to keep the hospital warm that get the most burnt out.
  • Giving 100+% every day is exhausting. And it becomes more & more exhausting when you’re told that it’s never enough, you’re easily replaceable & you need to do better. I love caring for patients, but I am reaching my limits. Most of my colleagues have already reached theirs.
  • The belief that medicine is a sacred calling where one must sacrifice your family, your friends, and your mental health, or else you are not a truly committed professional… is one of the most hideous and toxic ideologies out there.

While such a visceral response is to be expected to controversial tweets, it is not the only example of how deeply this particular issue can divide dedicated professionals.

Whether medicine is a job or a calling was also featured as the closing debate at the Canadian Conference on Physician Leadership in April, with physician speakers from across the age spectrum. Even though these debates are always formally structured with speakers selected to argue a particular perspective in a good-humoured way, the intensity of perspectives on the issue came through clearly.

The question of calling or job is never going to be answered definitively. Those of us who are not physicians can only hope that those who choose medicine continue to maintain and support the health of the individuals and populations they serve without fatally impairing the health and wellbeing of themselves or their families.

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