Senior Doctors Need To Reinvent Themselves

Dr Aniruddha Malpani

Most doctors are pretty much set in their way by the time they reach 50. They expect to continue practicing clinical medicine and remaining doctors all their life. In one sense, unfortunately, they've become very myopic and end up leading their life pretty much on autopilot. This is partly because they think that clinical medicine is the only thing they're good at because this is what they've been doing for many years.

Yes, this is something they are extremely good at because they are often at the peak of their professional career. They get referrals from peers; recognition from colleagues and get invited to give lectures at medical conferences. Patients look up to them, and because they have been practising for so many years, they are highly respected in the community. The problem is that they continue thinking of themselves only as being successful doctors and aren't willing to explore alternative options. Even though many are bored, and some are burnt out, they don't have the confidence that they can do something new at this stage of their life, so they remain stuck in a rut.

For one thing, they're in a comfort zone, which acts a bit like a golden handcuff. Society respects them, and they are so comfortable and secure in their avatar as a senior doctor that they cannot think of doing anything beyond medicine. Interestingly, this is so different for MBAs, for example, who are quite happy switching from one company to another, and moving from one domain to another, even though they may have no prior experience in it. You are forced to wonder why doctors don't display that same degree of flexibility, and why they are happy to remain daily wage earners.

I think doctors forget that they were efficient learning machines when they were 25. They mastered lots of complex skills and could lead a team of clinicians. As they age, perhaps they are worried that they're no longer able to learn new stuff anymore – they have lost confidence in their ability to reinvent themselves.

This can be tragic because the best years of their life are still ahead of them. They're still physically fit and mentally sharp. Their kids have grown up and moved out of the house. They've met most of their financial obligations, and no longer need to prove themselves to the rest of the world. Hopefully, they are mature enough to realize that they have reached that stage in their life when they can focus on themselves. This is the time to be selfish and put their interests first – to pamper themselves, and explore all the interests they were forced to forego because they were so focused on building their practice, when they always had to put their patients first.

Sadly, many senior doctors don't have the courage to be able to do this. They often envy other people who can do this, but they enjoy what they do just enough to think they are going to be stuck where they are till they die. After all, they've invested so much of their life in doing medicine and becoming successful doctors that they think it would make no sense at all to chuck that all up and try doing something else.

A friend of mine pointed out, part of the problem is that the doctor, his family, his colleagues and society all seem to expect that the physician will continue to “give back” to his patients for as long as he is able to. After all, we have a shortage of doctors, so isn't it selfish and unfair for a doctor to hang up his boots, even though he can be professionally productive? And because there are very few role models of doctors who have chosen to follow their own heart, this seems to be the default route for most doctors – to continue doctoring until they aren't able to do so anymore.

However, one wonders whether both society and the physician are missing out on both receiving and making an even larger contribution by rethinking the role of a senior physician. A lifetime of experience as a doctor can be utilized gainfully in so many other ways – and this way junior doctors ( who have a lot more energy) also get a chance to shine and establish themselves.

I think it's a shame that doctors don't have the courage to explore new paths. Lots of them became doctors in order to keep their parents happy. Then, they did well in medical college to keep their professors happy. They then spent most their life earning money to be able to give their kids a head start in life. This is finally the time when they can be a little selfish and do some stuff for themselves. They are still physically fit and mentally sharp, and have enough financial freedom that they don't need to work for a living anymore. However, because they refuse to explore new horizons, they continue doing the same old thing they've been doing day in and day out, and never get to explore how much more life has to offer them !

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