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The Downsides Of Being A Doctor (A Brutally Honest Opinion)

The Downsides Of Being A Doctor (A Brutally Honest Opinion)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Sadly, working in medicine isnโ€™t all sunshine and roses. There are some significant disadvantages to being a doctor that you might not have considered.

The main downsides of being a doctor are:

  1. The long and difficult training
  2. Your poor work-life balance
  3. The risk of litigation
  4. The demanding and stressful work
  5. The life-long learning

In fact, in a report published by the Medical Protection Society, 45% of doctors said they had thought about leaving the profession due to concerns about their wellbeing.

In this article, Iโ€™m going to explore these five reasons why you might want to consider a different career and give you my personal insight into the pros and cons of medicine having worked as a junior doctor for the last three years.

The Long And Difficult Training

It’s true that after five years of medical school you are ‘technically’ a doctor. You’ve graduated from university and can now put ‘Dr’ on your passport if you want!

However, there’s still a long road ahead of you on the journey to becoming a ‘fully-qualified’ doctor.

That’s because although medical school provides you with the foundations for working in medicine, there’s still a huge amount to learn about your chosen medical specialty.

The shortest route is that of GP training, which takes five years to complete after graduating from medical school. The longest training pathways can take over a decade to complete, with trainees often taking time out to complete PhDs to help further their careers.

Throughout this training pathway, you’ll also likely have a number of challenging postgraduate medical exams sprinkled in.

These aren’t something to be sniffed at.

For example, the MRCS part A is an exam doctors have to take as part of their specialisation to become surgeons.

The pass rate for this exam, that’s taken by fully qualified doctors, is about 1 in 3. Two-thirds of candidates fail it and have to start the revision process all over again.

Now to be clear, while you’re undertaking your clinical training you are still working as a doctor, and getting paid, but it’s still a long uphill struggle to progress your career.

Your Poor Work-Life Balance

A good work-life balance is becoming an increasingly high priority for people as the importance of mental wellbeing continues to be highlighted by popular culture.

Unfortunately, the work of a junior doctor is not particularly conducive to a good work-life balance.

You’ll frequently find yourself working weekends, nights and unsocial hours- for example, finishing work at 2am.

Now if you’re a night owl, this might not actually sound too bad to you. Which to be fair, in isolation, it isn’t.

A group of friends socialising at a bar

However, I’ve found that difficulties arise when you’re trying to fit your work schedule around a social life.

You won’t be able to commit to that wedding in a couple of months because you don’t have your rota through yet to see if you’re working that weekend, you can only take leave on days you’re not meant to be on-call and you can’t meet your friends for a drink after work because you don’t finish till 11pm.

Of over 400 doctors that completed a survey for researchers, only 26% reported a satisfactory work-life balance; with 70% of all respondents confirming that their work negatively affected their relationships.

The sad fact is that you see evidence of these statistics in the hospital. You’ll meet plenty of surgeons, as an example, who are on their second wife or husband following a divorce.

It’s by no means impossible to maintain a social life or relationship while working in medicine, but being a doctor certainly doesn’t make it easy!

The Risk Of Litigation

The risk of litigation is probably the thing I’m most scared of when working as a doctor.

There are just too many horror stories about doctors being sued years (and potentially even decades) after an event that potentially led to a patient coming to harm.

And these investigations often drag on for years themselves, all the while the doctor in question’s mental health undoubtedly suffers with the stress of the ordeal.

Statistics from the Medical Defence Union show that GPs can expect to be sued four times in a forty-year career.

So about once every ten years.

However, the latest figures show that in less than a fifth of cases (17%) the doctor under scrutiny is found to be negligent.

Now I’m all for accountability in medicine and do believe in compensation for patients if they’ve come to harm at the hands of a negligent doctor, but it doesn’t change the fact that this risk of litigation is always at the back of my mind when seeing patients.

This subconscious worry about being struck off from the medical register leads to a lot of doctors practising defensive medicine.

Defensive medicine is when a doctor might order an investigation that may not be entirely necessary, or prescribe a treatment that may be doing more harm than good, in order to protect themselves from being sued.

The vast majority of doctors only want the best for their patients but there are sometimes situations in which it’s not entirely clear whether or not something would be in the best interests of the patient.

And in these situations, you may find yourself being influenced by the risk of litigation to act in a certain way.

Unfortunately, the reality is that this defensive medicine does have a real negative impact on patients. For example, every extra CT scan ordered exposes patients to unnecessary radiation that increases their risk of developing cancer later in life.

The risk of litigation is something that doctors, in reality, just have to learn to live with. You can reduce it by taking careful clinical notes and recording every interaction with patients but at the end of the day, there’s nothing you can do to eliminate it.

The Demanding And Stressful Work

I know that not many people would describe the work of a junior doctor as ‘easy’ but I’m not sure I truly appreciated the intensity of a busy day in the hospital until I was actually there doing it!

Not every day is incredibly busy, indeed there are even days when it’s positively quiet, but when it’s busy it’s really busy.

The COVID-19 pandemic definitely didn’t help matters, with a third of medical trainees saying they felt burnt out to a high or very degree because of their work, compared to around a quarter in previous years.

This GMC report also described that three in five doctors said they always or often felt worn out at the end of a working day, and 44% felt their work was โ€˜emotionally exhaustingโ€™ to a high or very high degree.

A stressed junior doctor takes a quick break sitting against a wall

I wouldn’t describe myself as a particularly stressy person but on an understaffed, over-worked weekend shift I can feel myself getting pretty frazzled.

When working as a foundation doctor in Plymouth I’d regularly see or hear about colleagues being brought to tears by the stress and workload of the job. And the sad fact is that it wasn’t seen as particularly out of the ordinary.

When working overnight we’d be given a smartphone that a central hospital coordinator could then ‘text’ jobs to us with over the course of the shift.

I remember one night a good friend of mine just became so overwhelmed by the constant barrage of messages coming in about things that needed doing around the hospital that he broke down in an empty stairwell.

Not every shift is as horrible as this but if you’re applying to medical school then you should be aware of what some of the worst days look like.

The Life-Long Learning

This last one can sort of be seen as either a positive or a negative (depending on your outlook!).

It’s the fact that you always have to be continuing to develop and learn throughout your career in medicine.

You canโ€™t rest on your laurels.

Medicine is constantly changing and updating and if you don’t stay on top of that change then you’re going to fall behind.

You do occasionally meet GPs who may be close to retirement and are somewhat stuck in their ways. They’ll be prescribing the same treatment for the same conditions as they have been for the last thirty years.

However, the reality is that they’ll be delivering a lower standard of care to their patients than more up-to-date colleagues.

This can be a positive if you’re a naturally curious person who loves learning as an act in itself. Or it can be a massive negative if you just want to get to the end of your medical education once and for all!

Personally, I don’t mind this slow, constant evolution of medical knowledge as it simply signifies our progression in the field of healthcare. However, there is an aspect inherent to this changing nature of clinical practice that I do struggle with.

It means that if you do take some time away from medicine you’ll experience a massive skill fade.

I could imagine wanting to take a sabbatical in the future, for example, to go travelling, but by doing so I know my medical knowledge could quickly become out-of-date and I’d lose some finer detailed clinical skills.

Now this isn’t the end of the world, it won’t stop me actually going travelling if I do choose to go, but it does mean I’ll have to invest time and effort to refresh my knowledge on return to clinical practice.

Just something to be aware of before starting down the road of a career in medicine.

Final Thoughts

I’ll still tell you medicine is an incredible career and choosing to go to medical school can be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make.

But it would be untruthful to only ever describe the positives of the profession on this website.

Without trying to downplay the downsides, as every disadvantage can have a massive impact on a doctor’s life, I firmly believe the pros of a career in medicine outweigh the cons.

Now it’s down to you to decide if that’s the case for you personally, but hopefully I’ve given you a behind-the-scenes look to help better inform your decision.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.