Someone asked me recently if I still would have become a doctor, had I known then what I know now. Obviously this is deeply philosophical and moot, as well as truly impossible to answer accurately. Although I am a doctor I am not a time traveller (no Tardis for me sadly – and rest-assured, I am not a science fiction anorak) nor would I ever want to revert to an earlier self, having been there and survived, thank-you very much. But having thought about this, the answer to the above question would have been a resounding, “of course!” I have absolutely no regrets about becoming a doctor, although perhaps I am thinking about this with rose-tinted lenses of whatever sort as well as from a rather comfortable vantage point in my lovely, warm and cosy abode on a non-work day.

I have absolutely no regrets about being a doctor, and would encourage all those interested in pursuing their ambitions, whatever they may be, with the caveat that things can and do change and just having medical qualifications is not enough to do the job. Medical education and training (not quite the same thing in my opinion) are good at teaching clinical science and skills but not how to do the job, with its myriad complexities.

I recall reading, likely many years ago, that Hippocrates, the so-called father of medicine, is credited with saying, ”war is the only proper school for a surgeon”. Now, I am not a surgeon by any means, at least not anymore, having survived my six months compulsory sentence as a junior surgeon all those years ago. I never really wanted to be a surgeon and doubt I have the skills, temperament or stamina for this role. I respect those who are surgeons, at least those deserving of respect, and oddly enough I work with surgeons now, and enjoy the experience (they are lovely colleagues, supportive, considerate and a pleasure to associate with), but my career has taken me in different directions.

I do, however, think that Hippocrates’ words are particularly germane to medicine, with the war analogy sadly being rather accurate, in spite of my fortunate avoidance of war in its literal, battlefield sense. And for that I am truly grateful. Yet exposure to wars of different sorts has been an unexpected side-effect of enlistment into medical school and beyond, and what no-one tells you or teaches you about medicine and working as a doctor, at least in the UK circa the late twentieth century, is that the war metaphor is more apt than one realizes. Thinking back to when I qualified, I do not think that the training prepared me for life on the front line, with its endless demands and pressures, clinical and political. Yet at the time I was working 100-plus hour weeks, surviving on adrenaline and not much else, hardly sleeping or eating – a good way to lose weight (I lost 2 stone in my first two months of service) and to undergo character-building yet sole-destroying experiences. I was young and naïve and somehow got through it, knowing that things could only get better. And they did, sort of, as I progressed up the ranks until I reached the top and things started to go downhill again. Not because of clinical things generally, but politics, ‘difficult’ colleagues, a health system that seemed to be designed to be self-defeating and the uncomfortable realisation that things can and will go wrong. I was lucky enough to have developed an early interest in law, health policy and conflict resolution which meant that I could avoid many of the problems afflicting other colleagues, but this did not grant me full immunity and on occasion I had my share of ‘character-building’ experiences that are common to all doctors.

I suppose the point of all this is that training of whatever sort only prepares you for some aspects of work, whatever it is one does, but not for the hidden side of work – politics, problems with colleagues, lack of resources, dysfunctional systems or whatever unfairness or inadequacy that work can involve. Looking back on it all, I can truly say that I have no regrets about becoming a doctor, and the knowledge and experience granted by this unique and privileged role, at least in its early stages, has allowed me to progress and now do the sort of work that is highly enjoyable, rewarding and fun. I appreciate how lucky I am, and how it has often been my non-medical knowledge and skills which have moved my career forward. I would highly recommend that we all acquire as much training, education, skills and competencies as possible, remembering that work is much more than making something, providing a service, earning money or whatever. Most people would not drive a car without insurance and likewise I would not work without the equivalent of knowing what to do when things go wrong. Skills in dealing with difficult people and systems will always stand you in good stead, as will knowing exactly how and what to do when faced with such hostility or adversity. Training and experience in alternative conflict resolution of whatever sort is invaluable, can be prophylactic and perhaps even career-saving. I would hope that all doctors have at least some skill in this area, but if not, I would highly recommend training and experience in mediation specifically, if not in law, diplomacy and politics. Oh, and possibly acting. Obviously medical school curricula are crammed enough as it is, but any junior and senior doctors or civilians out there take heed – the job is increasingly akin to being at war and a bit of forethought is well worth it to avoid becoming a casualty. In my experience this has made me avoid regrets, develop my career in alternate and exciting directions and reduced stress. I still enjoy the doctoring I do, as I can do it on my own terms, which is very gratifying and ultimately in the best interests of my patients. There is therefore no reason why your experiences should be any different…