Autumn 2018

Alumni Assess the Pros and Cons of Being a Physician

Details, updates, and observations from alumni

Imaging Issue

  • 10 minute read

In this mid-twentieth century photo, William Bosworth Castle, MD 1921 (center) talks with medical staff and faculty in a ward at Boston City Hospital.

In this mid-twentieth century photo, William Bosworth Castle, MD 1921 (center) talks with medical staff and faculty in a ward at Boston City Hospital.

What would you tell someone who asks you if they should become a doctor?

Redmond Burke, MD ’84

You should become a doctor if you want to push yourself to the human limit during a decade or more of training and learn from a generation of brilliant people. You should become a doctor if you want to wake up every day without an alarm and know that you are going to save someone’s life, or their baby’s life, or make them feel better, or invent a lifesaving drug, or simply know that whatever you do that day, you will help someone. That’s what it is to be a doctor, and it’s a phenomenal feeling.

Victor Connell, MD ’74

I would say that it depends on which kind of medicine he or she would like to practice. Managing a primary care practice has become very challenging, given the current trends toward physicians becoming employees of large managed-care organizations and greater government involvement in health care delivery and reimbursement. The expense involved in becoming a physician is also a big factor, so it is worth considering alternative health care provider options such as nurse practitioner, physician assistant, and physical therapist.

Thomas Ukena, PhD ’74, MD ’75

As I told my daughter, who is now an endocrinologist, medicine is not a perfect career, but it’s way ahead of whatever is in second place.

John Bullock, MD ’68

I would tell them to do it only if they were 100 percent devoted to medicine.

Kurt Isselbacher, MD ’50

In the current climate, I would hesitate. Before making their decision, I would strongly encourage students to consult physicians in clinical and/or academic medicine to get their current views, perspectives, and advice regarding medicine as a career choice.

James Alonzo Nelson, MD ’65

If it is a true calling, there is no better career. Keep learning as long as you can and seek ways to improve patient outcomes. The breadth of medicine allows creative and rewarding opportunities encompassing a range of fields and employment choices. I chose an academic pathway, which I enjoyed immensely despite some political obstructions.

Elliott Miller, MD ’58

Have a passion for medicine or don’t go into it. If you don’t have that passion, it will be too hard.

Hatim A. Kanaaneh, MD ’68

I would strongly recommend a life as a physician. Being a doctor has allowed me to not only care for people who might feel uncomfortable or even afraid to visit a doctor, but has also allowed me to build bridges between people. As a physician, I feel I have been able to change a corner of the world for the better.

When I graduated from Harvard with an MD and an MPH, I made the decision to return to Arrabeh, my Palestinian home village in Galilee, North Israel. I was the first indigenous medical doctor serving a region of more than 50,000 people. Today, Arrabeh boasts the highest number of medical graduates per thousand in all of Israel, possibly the world. Perhaps more important, in our region of Israel, health worker development is the one arena that suffers the least differential between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority. This is, to me, a miracle, one that Harvard inspired.

Using my skills in medicine and public health, I have set up institutions to help my people. One, the Galilee Society, an association for health research and services that I founded with three colleagues, is a nongovernmental organization that addresses unmet health and development challenges in Palestinian minority towns and villages in Israel. In 1998, with a young neuropsychologist from my village, I co-founded Elrazi, the first Arabic-language child rehabilitation center in Israel. This center continues to thrive, with scores of specialists and half a dozen branches across the country.

I am now retired and have begun writing in English so that I may tell the world about delivering care in a region so often troubled by conflict. As a physician and a voice within Israel, I want to let the world know that peace is possible between Arabs and Jews in historical Palestine.

I have Harvard, and my dear wife, to thank for the support and inspiration I received while a student at HMS. Today, if someone asked me about becoming a doctor, I would tell them that, for me, being a medical doctor has allowed me to keep alive the hope I had when I was a student at HMS: to make the world a better place.

Richard Krueger, MD ’73

Yes, it is a wonderful profession, but one that is undergoing great change.

Mary Flowers, MD ’78

Enter the profession with passion, grace, and gratitude for the opportunity to serve humankind. Don’t become a doctor to be a “provider.” I think that insurance companies knew that calling doctors providers would undermine the public’s confidence and trust in and respect for doctors as professionals. Being a doctor requires sacrifice, commitment, and resolve. Being a provider allows us to push pills, earn a salary, and go home. There is a definite distinction!

Ernie-Paul Barrette, MD ’90

Medicine remains a noble profession. Do not let anyone convince you otherwise.

Nason Hamlin, MD ’72

If they want a profession that is never boring, that requires hard work, that brings them in contact with wonderful people, and that helps to relieve human suffering, there is no better profession in the world.

Tamara Fountain, MD ’88

If you want to feel the pressure of encapsulating a 135-page electronic medical record, taking a history, performing a physical and counseling a frightened, vulnerable patient—all in 15 minutes—become a doctor.

If you want the solemn privilege of asking the most intimate of questions and examining the most private of body parts, become a doctor.

If you want to make a palpable difference in or literally save someone’s life, become a doctor.

William Thorpe, MD ’73

Do it for the right reasons—mixing science and humanity in a most intimate way.

Joan Leary Martinez, MD ’66

Follow your heart!

Mark Perlroth, MD ’60

It is certainly one of the most rewarding professions intellectually and personally. It provides satisfaction in many ways, including the appreciation and respect of your patients, co-workers, and society.

It entails rigorous training and sleep deprivation and, depending on your choice of specialty, can remove you from the pleasures of home and children.

At the end of your career, however, you can look back without the sense that your efforts and choices were spent wastefully or frivolously.

Sarah Wood, MD ’95

I’d tell them that if they have a true passion to be a physician, and if they are going into it for the right reasons, then there is no better profession. It is an incredible honor to be part of your patients’ lives during their most vulnerable and challenging moments, but one must be willing to endure long years of training, hard work, and the complexities and frustrations of a health care system that can often erode a doctor’s compassion and motivation.

Ryan Chuang, MD ’03

It’s a great profession, but it comes with lots of sacrifices as well.

Herbert Adams, MD ’65

The journey is tough, but the life is so worth it. Being a doctor will change how you see the world and how it sees you for your whole life.

Richard Reiling, MD ’67

Medicine is a mobile platform, but despite all the changes it is and always will be a great and honorable profession. The pain and joy of medicine are found in the care of the sick, the healthy, the poor, the rich, the young, and the old. Enter the profession with a goal of relieving the pain and suffering of others and ignoring your own frustrations and pain.

Albert Menno, MD ’56

I would tell them that medical school and medical practice are much different now than from when I trained, but it is still worth going into medicine if they have a sincere compassion for and interest in helping people.

Ronald Tegtmeier, MD ’68

Being a physician is still a great and noble profession. Compared to previous generations, you would have less independence, less monetary reward, more paperwork, and more people second-guessing you. But if you keep your heart and mind on the goals of helping people with compassion and science and of advancing medicine, you can have a rewarding and gratifying career.

Kelly Orringer, MD ’94

Yes! It remains a privilege and a joy to get to know my patients, their parents, and the wonderful colleagues, students, and trainees that I meet on a daily basis as a general pediatrician.

David Altshuler, MD ’90, PhD ’90

Medicine is always changing, but certain things are constant: There will always be people in need of care, there will always be a valued place for caregivers who are knowledgeable and kind, and there will always be mysteries of the human body to solve. From a more practical standpoint, society will always need doctors. If you are motivated by an interest in humanity and a desire to serve, medicine is a great career.

Richard Peinert, MD ’73

There are two groups of people who are never “ex:” Marines and doctors. To the youngsters reading this, you will understand this truth better as you approach retirement. You may hate the paperwork, the insurers, and the bureaucrats, but nothing surpasses the joy you will share with your patients. They will start as your patients, progress to patients with whom you are friendly, and finally become friends you have the great privilege of caring for. It is a sacred and beautiful trust.

Ellis Rolett, MD ’55

Both the opportunities and challenges are greater than they were when I was in medical school. A career in medicine today can be more impersonal than it was in my day. Be on guard against that if you want medicine to be a satisfying career.

Kathryn Glatter, MD ’93

Being a doctor is fun and a great way to help others. I’m an electrophysiologist, or interventional cardiologist, and it’s an extremely interesting, satisfying career. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Howard Rubenstein, MD ’57

My answer would depend on the someone who’s asking the question. I was a premed adviser at Kirkland House. I wasn’t impressed with the motivation of many premeds, even though they got straight As and were readily accepted. One fellow stood out. He cared deeply, related well, had a sense of humor, was sincere, and had integrity, but his grades were mostly Bs. He was rejected by all his choices. When I called the schools, a typical response was, “We want a scientist, not a person of integrity.” I sure hope things have changed.

Peter Zawadsky, MD ’68

Make certain you have an awareness of what kind of personal as well as professional life you would like to have in both the short and long term. One of the biggest hazards of a medical career is becoming overly committed, which can lead to burnout. Remember: “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult.”

Joseph Parrish, PhD ’69

Do you like to learn and to teach medicine? Physicians need a good sense of who they are and an uncanny ability to quickly find hints of what a person’s malady is and follow up with the tests and procedures needed to develop a treatment plan. They must function as a member of a team of physicians, nurses, lab technicians, and other specialists in order to effectively treat all sorts of diseases and complaints. Mental health is always at risk for an overworked doctor, so watch for the need for self-healing.

Edward Ussery, MMS ’08

People who think like computers will be replaced by them. Never lose your humanity.

Sean O’Connor, MD ’82

Go for it. It will be different, but it’s still a great career.

Image: Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine