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How Hard Is Being A Doctor? (A Professional's Opinion)

How Hard Is Being A Doctor? (A Professional’s 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.

Before I chose to go to medical school, I remember being nervous about whether I was making the right choice of starting down the road to becoming a doctor.

Was I going to be any good at it? Was I going to enjoy the work? And how hard actually is it being a doctor?

Doctors almost universally agree that working in medicine is hard work. A non-stop shift can be immensely draining physically, mentally and emotionally for a medical professional. There can however be significant variability in how busy each day is, making working as a doctor far more manageable.

Having been a clinician for a few years now, in this article I wanted to shed some light on the reality of working in the NHS.

That way, once you better understand the challenges of being a medic, I might be able to help you decide whether medicine would be a path you want to pursue.

How Tough Is It To Be A Doctor?

To better gauge how my colleagues view working in medicine, I actually surveyed 676 other junior doctors to get their opinion on how tough it is to be a clinician. Here are the results:

Difficulty LevelPercentage of Respondents
Incredibly Easy2%
Easy3%
Moderate21%
Difficult51%
Incredibly Difficult24%

So, 75% of junior doctors rate their work as difficult or very difficult! I’ve got to say I voted myself and selected ‘difficult.’

It is a hard one to judge though as working in medicine can be incredibly variable. On some days you’ll be able to spend hours in the doctors’ mess drinking coffee while on others you won’t have a chance to sit down.

I do think it’s telling that only 5% of respondents rated their job as incredibly easy or easy. As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, medicine is no walk in the park!

Where a doctor works will also have a massive influence on how difficult their job is. This applies to both geographic location as well as which department they’re with.

For example, when I worked in orthopaedics, if we didn’t have many patients we could have finished the ward round and all the jobs by lunchtime. Compared to my time in general surgery, in the same hospital, where we’d be lucky to not have to stay late on a daily basis.

Is Being A Doctor Stressful?

One of the most widely known drawbacks of working as a doctor is how stressful it can be.

Many doctors find their work incredibly stressful. Factors such as low staffing levels, high numbers of patients and time pressures all contribute to doctors feeling stressed at work. The serious implications of medical treatment failure, as well as the fear of litigation, can also add to doctors’ anxieties.

Having experienced it first hand, I can confirm there can be some pretty hectic days at work. The worst days are normally when there’s a combination of things all pulling you in different directions and increasing your workload.

Maybe one of your team is off sick so you’ve got to pick up the slack, an abnormally high number of patients have come into the hospital that day and someone on the ward has just become seriously unwell.

All these stressors are then underpinned by the fact that if you make a mistake as a doctor harm will normally (directly or indirectly) come to a patient.

A junior doctor working at a mobile computer on the ward

In this survey by the Medical Defence Union, they found that 55 per cent of doctors stated they felt anxious and/or stressed on a weekly basis.

So that’s over half of medical professionals saying they’re anxious every week.

It undoubtedly is one of the more negative aspects of the job. But that’s not to say there aren’t ways of dealing with it.

From my experience, doctors who deal the best with stress give themselves clear work/life boundaries and always have some hobby or sport that they use to unwind.

When I was working in Plymouth, there was no better way to relax after a busy day at work than to have a gentle paddle on the river Plym on a stand up paddle board.

What Is The Most Difficult Thing About Being A Doctor?

I remember I had to think long and hard when I was first asked what the most difficult thing about being a doctor was by a good friend of mine.

The most difficult thing about being a doctor is feeling like you’ve let your patients down. This might be as a result of treatment failure, a medical error or a lack of resources. A doctor’s primary goal is to relieve patients’ suffering so to feel like they’ve failed at this can be incredibly difficult.

As a doctor, patients ultimately lie at the centre of everything you do. The patient’s interests come first when you’re considering different investigations, treatment options and interventions.

Which is why doctors can really struggle with feeling like they’ve let their patients down.

This feeling can come from a doctor feeling like they’ve made a mistake- not ordering a blood test when they should have, not picking up on something on clinical examination or missing an overarching diagnosis.

However, I think more commonly, doctors can feel this way through no fault of their own.

When I see a patient who’s had to wait literally fourteen hours in A&E I apologise.

I apologise for how long the wait was, that they’ve had to sit there in pain and that we couldn’t have got to them earlier.

It’s no fault of my own that the A&E is overrun due to low staffing levels and high numbers of patients, but I still find it difficult that we, as the NHS, can’t provide a better service to the patients that are coming through the door.

Is Being A Doctor Overrated?

As a result of how desperate so many people are to become doctors, compared to the realities of working in the NHS that you may have seen on the news, you may wonder whether being a doctor is overrated?

The majority of physicians would not agree that being a doctor is overrated. Medicine is an immensely rewarding career, with plenty of opportunities for professional recompense. However over time, due to the stresses of the job, some doctors can become disillusioned.

It is true that some people build up becoming a doctor to an achievement of mythical proportions.

And honestly, if people go into medicine with unrealistic expectations of what life as a junior doctor will actually be like, they will be disappointed.

A doctor preparing to give a patient a vaccination

Life as a clinician in the NHS is far from an idyllic existence in the land of milk and honey. But, despite this, there is still a lot to be said for it.

Over years of hard work and little rest, about a third of doctors do become burnt out. And as a result of their disillusionment, you may hear them speak incredibly negatively about the profession.

While there will often be substantial truth in what they’re saying, I think you’ll always be able to find other doctors who still champion the vocation despite its drawbacks, and who wouldn’t say being a doctor is overrated.

Final Thoughts

As with any profession, there are going to be good days and bad days. Over the course of my foundation years, there were some insanely busy shifts but that definitely wasn’t the everyday normal.

An average day as a junior doctor in Derriford hospital was perfectly manageable and made all the better by getting to work alongside some fantastic colleagues.

As a doctor, you will have some tough times but nowhere near frequently enough for me to stop recommending it as the best job in the world!

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.