New Doctors, New Choices: The Delicate Work/Life Balance

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Tim Murphy, MSIV, University of Connecticut , School of Medicine, Farmington, CT

During my third-year rotations, I was frequently regaled with stories from senior physicians about their training. Often these tales centered on the ungodly amount of hours they had to work and the sacrifices they had to make to get to where they are today. Inevitably, these stories ended with a lecture on how easy today’s medical students have it, and how my generation lacks the dedication shown by those in the past.

This sentiment is not just limited to medicine. In a recent speech, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, compared Ameri­can students with those of South Korea and found that we fall far short.1 He concluded that there were many reasons for this, including his belief that students and their parents simply aren’t as dedicated to their studies as those in previous generations. This is a cultural problem that I have experienced first-hand while working as a wrestling coach at a local high school. Several students are ineligible to compete because of their grades, mainly because they simply do not do their homework. When asked why they had let their studies slide, these students are unable to give an answer other than, “I don’t like homework.” Like Duncan, I find this trend troubling.

As medical students and future physicians, we undoubtedly value education — or else we wouldn’t have succeeded in getting into medical school. But Secretary Duncan’s speechgot me thinking about whether medical students today have the same discipline and work ethicas students in prior generations. It is well-documented that medical students today want to work less hours and have more flexibility — even if this means less pay. Senior physicians may perceive this approach as “taking the easy way out.”  But is this more relaxed work schedule similar to my wrestling students’ approach to homework, or is it just a new way of looking at an old situation?  And is it necessarily a bad thing for medicine, or will it negatively impact patient care?

While working more hours may lead to more experience and knowledge, it seems there is a limit. Overtired and unhappy physicians are bound to make more mistakes and worsen patient care. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived workers make more work-related errors.2 Should new physicians be forced to work long hours because of tradition and a sense of duty? If new physicians want to voluntarily increase duty hours and can still provide quality patient care, that is their choice — but I think it would be a mistake to expect this from everyone. Happier physicians deliver better care, so promoting flexible work schedules can create a win-win situation.

As I look to residency and beyond, I expect and welcome the work that comes with it. A strong work ethic is very important, and it is paramount that I become the best physician I can be by delivering the highest quality of care to my patients. However, I don’t think this is incompatible with a balanced lifestyle. Nor do I think that valuing a better work/life balance should be looked down upon. It is an individual’s decision and doesn’t reflect on his or her dedication to the patient. This isn’t bad for the profession; it is merely a change in how medicine is and will be practiced.

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