You’re in the middle of your medical school years, and wondering what specialty to pursue. There are two major forks in the road when trying to choose the career that suits your emotional make-up and work ethic. The sooner you understand these two forks in the road, the better off you’ll be.
CLINIC DOCTOR OR ACUTE CARE DOCTOR?
The first major fork in the road is whether you’re best suited for a career as a clinic doctor or as an acute care doctor. The main specialties for clinic doctors are internal medicine, family practice, pediatrics, and psychiatry. The main specialties for acute care doctors are surgery, anesthesiology, emergency medicine, and obstetrics-gynecology.
Internal medicine and pediatrics include subspecialties. The subspecialties of endocrinology, oncology, nephrology (kidney specialist), and allergy-immunology are primarily clinic doctors. Cardiologists are hybrid clinic/acute care doctors who must first complete a residency in internal medicine, and then subspecialize with 3-4 additional years of fellowship training. Pulmonologists (lung specialists) are also hybrid clinic/acute care doctors who must first complete a residency in internal medicine, and then subspecialize with 2 additional years of fellowship training.
Pursue a career as a clinic doctor if you enjoy sitting in a room, listening to patients and talking to patients. Most clinic doctors rarely place a tube or a needle into a patient after their residency training is completed. Most clinic doctors work daytime hours, but have weekend call and night call, which may include phone consultations or emergency room visits. Clinic doctors see multiple patients per day, perhaps 4-8 patients per day for psychiatrists, and up to 30 patients or more for some specialists such as allergists.
Pursue a career as an acute care doctor if you prefer adrenaline-charged arenas such as the operating room, the intensive care unit, the labor and delivery suite, or the emergency room. The pace will be much faster than in a clinic, and the stress level will be higher. You’ll perform surgeries, deliver babies, or run trauma Code Blues. If you become an anesthesiologist, you’ll routinely put your patients into pharmaceutical comas and then reverse that status.
These are some of the significant differences between the clinic path and the acute care path:
- Sudden risks are almost unknown in clinics. In a clinic setting, doctors make diagnoses, order tests, and prescribe oral medications. In an acute care setting, health care interventions involve scalpels, tubes, IVs, intravenous medications, breathing tubes and ventilators. Malpractice events are less likely to occur in clinic settings. It’s difficult to harm a patient in a clinic. Clinic errors may involve the failure to make the correct diagnosis or the failure to follow up on the result of an important test. Acute care errors can include failure to manage the A-B-Cs of airway, breathing, and circulation safely.
- Income differences. Physicians who do procedures, and who incur the risks of procedures gone wrong, earn more money. Physicians who staff clinics usually earn less. This fact may be concealed from medical students. Once students become aware of the income differences, the invisible hand of capitalism tends to drive them into the acute care specialties which are higher paying. The financial numbers are pertinent, because the median debt for an American medical school graduate was $200,000 in 2019. The average four-year cost for a public medical school education was $250,222, and the average four-year cost for a private medical school education was $330,180. Medical school graduates need to earn a significant income to repay their student loans.
- Long-term relationships with patients. Primary care clinic doctors often attend to the same patients for decades, and form long-term cordial relationships with their patients. Acute care doctors typically see a patient once, for a surgery, an anesthetic, a childbirth, or an emergency room visit. Acute care doctors rarely develop lasting interactions with any of their patients. Clinic doctors may receive holiday cards or presents from their patients; acute care doctors will not.
- Lifestyle differences. Clinic doctors mainly work daytime hours, although they may receive afterhours phone calls regarding patient health problems. If one of their patients becomes acutely ill, a primary care doctor may see that patient in the emergency room. Some acute care specialists work as shift labor, especially emergency room doctors, anesthesiologists, or hospitalists. Acute care doctors may also have schedules in which they can take blocks of weeks or even months off at a time, giving them the option to pursue longer vacations or travel. Primary care doctors are rarely able to take long blocks of time away from their patients.
ACADEMIC DOCTOR OR COMMUNITY DOCTOR?
A second fork in the road during physician training is the choice whether to become an academic physician or a community physician. An academic physician is a faculty member at a medical school. Their job description includes teaching younger doctors and mentoring younger doctors in patient care. Academic physicians work in university hospitals, Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals, and county hospitals—any setting where medical students and resident physicians are training. Ambitious medical students often plan to become academic physicians, because they admire the academic professors who are training them. Ambitious medical students may profess that they want to become academic professors, because it may appear this career path is what the finest university training programs are looking for. The gambit seems to look like this: if you want to be admitted to a famous university residency program, tell them you want to be a famous professor just like the individual who is interviewing you for that program. I can only advise you to tell the truth about your career ambitions.
Most physicians eventually drift away from academic intentions, and become community physicians. Community physicians are individuals who work at your local clinic, your local hospital, or your local health maintenance organization. A 2017 article stated that “Although 45 percent of graduating medical students aspire to work in an academic setting, only about 16 percent will do so. Of those who do work in academic settings, up to 38 percent will leave academia within 10 years.”
These are some of the significant differences between the between the academic path and the community path:
- Income. Academic physicians usually earn less money than community physicians. Academics spend part of their time teaching young doctors, instead of seeing additional patients. Academics may also spend part of their time doing laboratory science or clinical studies, instead of seeing additional patients. Academic departments also typically pay a “Dean’s tax” to the medical school dean, as part of their agreement within the medical school.
- Housestaff back-up. Academic physicians have a team of housestaff physicians—interns, residents, and fellows—to do many of the mundane tasks of patient care for them. These housestaff physicians may sleep in the hospital and handle middle-of-the night issues while the academic faculty member sleeps at home. This is a significant benefit. I can attest that as you age, you’ll have less and less desire to get out of bed to handle urgent medical issues. Community physicians must function like interns. They set up call schedules to share night duty with other community physicians in the same specialty, but if there’s an issue at night when you’re on call, you will have to drive to the hospital to handle it.
- Tenure for professors. If academic professors have a productive career of publishing significant research, their university may award them with tenure, defined as lifetime job security at that university. Tenure guarantees a distinguished professor academic freedom and freedom of speech by protecting him or her from being fired no matter how controversial or nontraditional their research, publications, or ideas are. This benefit is usually only an option for basic science research doctors who are specifically hired to “tenure-track” appointments.
A THIRD FORK:
A small minority of medical school graduates shun either academic or community practice, and instead take their MD degree and go directly to work in industry either as a researcher at a medical company, or a consultant in a medical industry. Consider this path if you believe you’re not suited to taking care of patients.
I had personal experience with each of these forks in my medical education road. During medical school I was having a difficult time deciding between surgery and internal medicine. During my final summer quarter break, I returned to my hometown and joined the local general surgeon to observe him performing a gall bladder surgery. After the procedure, I questioned him about his satisfaction with his career in general surgery. He told me, “I’m very happy with general surgery, but if I had to do the 7-year residency over again, I could never do it. It was that difficult.” The look on his face told me what I needed to know, so I opted for a career in internal medicine. I matched at Stanford and began my three-year residency. During my second year, while I was spending my afternoons in the internal medicine clinic, I realized I preferred acute care to clinic care. That same year I’d spent one month in the Stanford intensive care unit (ICU) rotation. The Stanford anesthesia department ran the ICU, and I met multiple faculty and resident anesthesiologists who loved their specialty and were excellent role models. I made an appointment to meet with the ICU physician-in-chief, and told him I wanted to become an ICU specialist like him. He told me, “If you want to be an ICU doctor, I’d advise you to do an anesthesia residency first, because ICU care involves airway-breathing-circulation, and anesthesiologists are the airway experts. But once you finish your anesthesia residency, you’ll never come back to see me, because you’ll love anesthesia so much you’ll probably just do anesthesiology as a career.” I followed his advice. I applied to anesthesia residencies, and was eventually accepted to begin my anesthesia training, albeit three years into the future.
During those three years, I finished my internal medicine training. Then I hovered at the fork in the road between academic and community medicine during my one-year gap between my internal medicine and anesthesia residencies. The Stanford Department of Internal Medicine hired me for a twelve-month position as a faculty member in the emergency room. My role was to be the attending in the ER from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and to give a lecture to the residents each morning at 8 a.m. I was thrilled to be on the faculty at Stanford at the young age of 29. I discovered during that year that if you’re an academic doctor/clinician/educator who doesn’t do research, that you have minimal respect within your department. That same year I met many community doctors on their ER duty who were very happy with their work. My conclusion from my one-year academic appointment was that if you enjoyed clinical care, then it was better to just graduate from your training program and go out there and do clinical care in the community. If I’d had the skillset to become a tenure-track academic professor, perhaps I would have pursued a university career, but I did not.
THE BIG PICTURE:
There is tremendous competition to become a physician. Applications to medical school are at an all time high. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), applications increased 18% from 2020 to 2021. Stanford University School of Medicine received 11,000 applications for an admission class of 90 spots.
It’s an honorable and a wonderful career to heal and take care of sick and suffering as a medical doctor. If you’re admitted to an American medical school, you’ll have the choice whether to become a primary care doctor or an acute care doctor. You’ll have the choice to become an academic physician or a community physician. But you’ll have made the most important choice already—to become a medical doctor in the first place.
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