As I begin my third year in medical practice as an attending physician, I can only reflect on my previous journey and path taken. After chasing the dream of becoming a competent certified physician, I am currently managing the hamster wheel of day-to-day patient care, teaching opportunities, procedures, and the management of my EMR in-basket. It is a great gig, and that is what I tell people. I love my job and strive to keep my work-life balance as well as a positive attitude.
And then there are the days where I get discouraged by the number of patient messages piling up in my in-basket, or requests from patients that conflict with evidence-based recommendations, or the chilling struggle to get medications approved by insurers. These are the hurdles I was not prepared for. The insurers call the shots and yet patients will hold the physician responsible to obtain approvals.
Despite the challenges, a physician’s mindset must remain positive and strong. Some things are simply out of our control and sometimes, you must close the laptop and put down the phone and be present in your own life to ultimately have the capacity to continue to give your present moment to patients.
Throughout my training, certain advice proved worthy, and as an educator, I pass these tips down to generations of medical students and residents. It is important to take care of yourself and give the appearance to patients that “you have your life together.” We should address mental health as often as we address physical well-being. We should sit with our patients. The deepest way to understand a patient living with anxiety is to ask, “what is a recurring thought you have or belief about yourself that repeats?”
Oh, how I have learned that our youth have many negative thoughts regarding their self-worth and how self-love is not a topic often considered! I have learned that new parents trying to juggle it all are consumed with guilt and fear. With only a few weeks left until my husband and I welcome our first baby girl into this world, I cannot help but be determined to learn how to become a working mom and still have grace with myself during the journey. Finding coping strategies in life to better help my patients has proved worthy time and time again.
Looking back on myself as that determined medical student, I appreciate her passion early on to help patients feel seen, heard, and cared for. The first and best piece of advice I have for the younger me is: “Do not rush the process of developing your career.” Being in “student status” for an extended number of years — several years longer than many of your college friends — can be difficult. Do not worry. You will get there. The best advice I heard throughout my training was not to try to live like a resident when you are a medical student, and not to try to live like an attending when you are a resident.
Second, find a mentor. Having a mentor helps you stay on track and grow as a professional and individual. As an attending, my mentor has taught me what opportunities to say “yes” to and which ones to pass on. This has fostered my work-life balance.
Third, work on your growth as an individual during your medical training. Learn about self-love and having balance in one’s life. I see too often that once second-year medical students start studying for their boards, they isolate themselves and their path in medicine can get lonely. Use the resources available, attend classes on achieving emotional intelligence. At the end of the journey, patients are putting their lives in your hands and will share with you their deepest struggles.
Lastly, I end with a reminder that our careers are referred to as “practicing medicine.” We must continue to strive to improve and not become complacent with our job performance. Do not reject future changes — for example, the integration of artificial intelligence — and remember, we do have a great gig.
Elena Zamora, MD, MHA, is an assistant professor of family and community medicine and a co-director of the Primary Care Career Focus Track at the UT Health McGovern Medical School in Houston.