Although starting medical school means many different things to different people, we are all unified in this transition by the fact that we are joining something larger than ourselves: we are joining a team. Like any other team, there are codes of conduct, battles of pride, and the constant struggle for unified strength against common enemies, from disease to imposed restrictions on our autonomy to our own mistakes and shortcomings. Nonetheless, despite the inevitable hardship and challenge, there are many perks. Of all the sources of American health care costs, it’s somewhat surprising that relatively few try to argue for the reduction of one of the highest costs: physician salaries. I’m fine with that. Why? Not just for purely selfish reasons, but it’s my firm belief that medicine is one of the few occupations where good, intelligent people can be rewarded with financial benefits and personal satisfaction for being both. In this profession, you don’t have to sell your soul to succeed: instead, your strength of spirit, your generosity, and your kindness actually make you better at what you do.
It is nothing short of a blessing and a privilege to be a part of this profession: for every one of us who sits in class each day, there is at least one or perhaps many others who missed their chance, more likely than not for unfair reasons outside their control (including disease and poverty, our longstanding adversaries). On this team, what sort of player will you be? The type who hogs the ball, caring only about his own success? The type who needlessly gets into fights, penalizing the entire team? Many medical schools are successfully encouraging cooperation among students by making courses Pass/Fail; “gunners” and cutthroats are now more likely to be social pariahs than the accepted norm. However, many still don’t take the statement “Your classmates are your future colleagues” to heart, thinking that the behavior of a doctor on the other side of the country would bear no significance on them. Nonsense. Look at Anna Pou. Jack Kevorkian. Bill Frist. Richard Cabot. Michael Debakey. In various ways, these physicians have had profound effects on the way medicine is practiced, the way physicians interact with the public arena, or the way we will practice medicine soon. Yet, one doesn’t need to have a high profile to affect the way your colleagues practice medicine. The ways that we as individuals interact with our patients, with the public, and with one another deeply influences the environment in which we practice, for better or worse. A patient with a poor rapport with one doctor might see you next, and he may be deeply scarred by his prior experience and needlessly untrusting in his approach to you. A potential donor to your program might rescind her offer, discovering that other practices in your hospital regularly use antiquated techniques. A colleague who might offer you some advice and constructive criticism to help improve your practice or technique might hold back, knowing that you have previously shown yourself to be too proud to change. Face it: despite your pride, you are going to change, but everyone else around you will too. We are in the same boat, together, and as a professional team, we will sink or sail together. If but one person chooses pride and selfishness over teamwork, we are all at risk of failure. If we as individuals truly deserve the opportunities given to us, we need to prove it. Fortunately, it’s not something we have to do alone.