In the mailbag:
Hello, Doc. I have cherished the idea of becoming an emergency room physician for quite some time now. The gratification of saving people’s lives aside (the effects are immediate and obvious), just to be able to earn the privilege of being a doctor is an enormous challenge (and reward no doubt) in itself. However as I researched the subject of ER physician further, I discovered that alas, what a rosy colored picture my naivet? had painted for me. The "scumbag medicine" (as it’s sometimes called), has lost much of it’s glory to me as I contemplate the reality of an emergency room
career: the obnoxious patients (or…hopeless junkies) being treated, the ever present bureaucratic interventions and threats of malpractic suits inflicted even on the good doctors.
Just to provide me with little additional information to aid my choice and hopefully clear up the confusion in my head, would you mind give a few thouhts as to whether is it worth it to be an ER physician and what has motivated you to apply for an ER residency slot in the first place?
First, I sincerely wish you luck in your path to medical school, and through the travails of medical education. You will not be bored.
As for Emergency Medicine, my motivation was steered by past experiences and reinforced by my early medical training. I took an EMT course during the summer following High School graduation, and I think that early exposure to emergent / prehospital medicine has had a profound steering effect on my career. After a year of college, I took off a year and worked full-time in an ED as an EMT, while attending night school to become a Paramedic, so by then I was completely hooked on the EM path. A surgical internship sealed my desire to have a specialty that didn’t involve living in the hospital, so EM was the course for me. I have never regretted that decision.
Emergency Medicine does have the benefit of (occasionally) being able to make a difference, right then, which is appreciated both by the patient (if awake) and doctor, and those times are terrific. No, more than terrific, they’re exhilarating, but we’re all pros so we downplay their effect (no high-fives in the resus bay, alas). The immediacy of those interactions is striking, keeps me interested and helps me go back to work.
There are very real downsides to EM as a profession, and the patient population can be one of them (if you let it). The more I practice the less the drunk/high/malingering/drug seeking get to me, and that’s a good thing. I cannot imagine getting through the end of my career if I let obnoxious behavior or less than satisfactory patients get to me on a personal level (and it used to, believe me, but part of the ‘professional veneer’ is realizing the patient is the one with the problem). The reality is there are plenty of patients who are trying to be nice (or at least not deliberately awful), but it’s human nature to dwell on the ones that make your life painful.
Other downsides: 24/7/365. It’s the reality of our specialty, someone has to be there, all the time, and sometimes (really, a lot of the time) it’s you. The third straight weekend spent in the ED can wear on the psyche, if you let it. Add in more job-insecurity than most other physician professions, a diminishing call list of specialists willing to help the sick and injured, higher than average medmal actions, and EM has its drawbacks. However, if you can see the problems you can deal with them, and knowing what you’re in for is the best preparation.
For me, there’s no better profession. I hope that helps.