A confused premed writes Doctor D for advice:
"I really want to be a doctor, but I have a fear of sick people. I don't mind needles or blood and guts, it's just people being physically sick that I am horrified by. It's the only thing holding me back from applying to Medical School. Is this something you think I can overcome?"
Excellent question my young friend!
The good news is that you aren't the only person who feels discomfort in the company of ill people. Many people feel this way to some extent or another. Ask any chronically ill person and they'll tell you how often people squirm in their presence. If you want to be a doctor you will eventually need to work comfortably around sick folks, but first lets examine why people feel this unease...
Why would you be horrified by sick people?
1) You're afraid you will catch their disease.
I suppose this is an understandable concern. But many illnesses aren't contagious and most of the others can be easily prevented with proper hand washing and immunizations. Doctor D has caught more things from his preschooler than he ever caught from patients!
But... I suppose there is always a small chance you will catch a bad illness from practicing medicine. If you aren't willing to take this risk then you should probably stay away from medical school.
If you want to blissfully imagine you will live forever in perfect health the existence of illness in others is a painful reminder of reality. If fear of sick people is an extension of your personal dread of death then by all means stay away from medicine because every day at work will terrify you.
Believe it or not, a lot of narcissists with the this issue are drawn to medicine because they want the MD as a status symbol. They leave medical practice when they realize that the presence of suffering kills their hedonistic buzz. Good riddance!
Human beings are social creatures. We all to some extent experience the world through the experiences of others. When we are around people who suffer—if we are at all feeling persons—we tend to feel a small amount of their pain.
This is Empathy, and empathy has motivated some truly amazing people to choose medicine as a career. Rather than avoiding the ill because of the sympathetic pain they feel, many empathic people want to help those who suffer.
If you are disturbed by ill people because you feel their pain, then you can become an understanding doctor goes the extra mile to help. We need more doctors like this.
If this is you, then you could have the makings of an excellent physician!
Disclaimer: Empathy Can Be Handicap Too!
If you feel so strongly for ill people that you turn into a puddle of ineffective mush when confronted with the suffering of another person then you aren't much use. Sick people come to doctors for help, and sympathy is an extra—a good extra, but only if it comes with professional help and skill.
Can you calm your emotions enough to think clearly and help people who are suffering greatly?
Also, empathetic doctors tend to get burned out. It's wonderful that you feel for your patients, but you have to realize that disease always wins in the end. You will lose a lot of patients. You will be unable to cure a lot of diseases. If your motivation for being in medicine is helping people's suffering you will have a lot of days you want to just give up. This is called compassion fatigue and it is the bane of kind doctors everywhere.
Can you keep doing your work with sick people and still care even when you lose again and again?
If you can maintain your empathy despite these obstacles you may just find that your initial anxiety around sick people made you into an even better doctor!
What do you think?
Patients: Would you be comfortable seeing a doctor who still sometimes feels uncomfortable around sick people? Would you go see our young premed once she graduates from medical school?
Med Students and Doctors: Have you ever overcome a dread of ill people?
PreMeds: Dr. D loves bringing premeds to the hospital and answering their questions about medicine. He always gives it to them straight about what it is really like to go through the training and then practice. So send him more questions!