Losing My Identity As “Doctor”

Who am I? What am I? Yes, I “am” a doctor. That is, I completed four years of medical school, graduating with a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree. That degree, along with some additional training and licensure, allows me to practice medicine, diagnosing and treating all manner of ailments and illnesses. Yet this MD status typically arrives with a set of expectations, attitudes and behaviors that can cause it to morph from a role into an identity.

Many physicians hold themselves to high standards for knowledge. They may expect to be “right” all the time, to always have the correct answer, even in non-medical situations. They may generalize from the (appropriate) expectation that they lead the medical team to expect that they should be in charge elsewhere, and their concept of leading the team may mean, “You do what I say.”

Then there is the importance of their work. If it is seen as all-important, long hours and intense schedules can become a badge of honor. If being a doctor is who you are, why wouldn’t you want be healing 24/7? Doing anything less would be beneath you.

Eventually this carryover from professional role to identity can result in interpersonal problems for physicians. In the worst case, the physician may be perceived as an arrogant and demanding workaholic. Marital and family relationships may suffer, or the doctor may have a great deal of difficulty working with hospital administrators and other business leaders.

My friend Dr. Tony Ferretti, a practicing psychologist, has recently written on the importance of differentiating between “what we do” and “who we are.” In his practice Tony sees many physicians who have assumed the identity of “doctor” and extended the attitudes and behaviors of the role into the rest of their lives. The good news is that people can change, and Tony specializes in that.

Personally, I think I have moved beyond “being” a doctor. Yes I do have an MD degree but I’m not defined by it. No doubt I was helped along in this regard by leaving the practice of medicine and moving into administration years ago. It was challenging to redefine myself back then, but in following Jesus, I am increasingly liberated from any identity other than “Disciple.”

Although I don’t define myself by being a doctor anymore, others may still define me that way. It’s interesting as an “ex-doctor” to be working primarily with healthcare administrators and observe the distinction afforded to physicians. Administrators sometimes seem to consider doctors as special and different, like a foreign tribe with which they are trying to maintain peaceful relations.

Pretty often I’ll be in meetings where we’ll be talking about “us” and the “doctors,” even when the doctors under discussion are employees like me! Or I might be in a conference room with my boss, David, and his boss, Lars, when someone walks in and says, “Hi David. Hi Lars. Hi Dr. Weiss.” Now that’s a mark of distinction (which can be somewhat uncomfortable for me). Of course people mean it as a sign of respect, but I think it creates a separation that’s not helpful for working together as a team.

Back in the physician tribe, things are not necessarily different – just reversed. Doctors are the “us” and administrators are “them.” And what about groups like nurses, insurers, pharmacists, employers, regulators, etc.?   There are many more “tribes” in the healthcare industry capable of thinking and behaving as an “us.”

The truth is that doctors are just people, patients are just people, and healthcare administrators are just people. We may have differing backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints, but do we need to let it divide us? I’ve been all three at various points in time, yet today I’m just a guy following Jesus and trying to do the best I can where he’s placed me.

Things are very stressful in healthcare right now. Intense legal and financial pressures are driving the industry through a period of wrenching change. Everyone feels the pressure regardless of tribe. Will it bring out the best in us? Can we find common ground among insurers, hospitals, physicians and patients? Can we drop our role-based “identities” and identify as people, people who all are going to need a healthcare system that works well? Can we get to a single “us?”

I believe we can.

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.  John 8:36 NIV

Comments

  1. not too shabby — being defined as a disciple of Christ! …or a child of God. I wonder how many people go to that thought when they think, “Who am I”. Tribal differences are difficult — our family differences, our education, our culture all manage to separate us in many ways…however, when we can gather together under the encouragement and care of Jesus, we can make amazing changes for good. May it be so in all fields of endeavor.