“That’s when I knew I wanted to be a doctor”

AAMC President and CEO Darrell G. Kirch, MD, reflects on his own path to becoming a physician as a new class of MDs graduates into residency.
Students in graduation caps and gowns
Credit: Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

Every June, I am grateful to be invited to commencement ceremonies at medical schools around the country. For the graduates, as well as their families and teachers, it is a day of unmitigated joy and celebration.  

So little has changed in that regard since I was in medical school. Despite the increased turmoil in our health care system today, these students are every bit as enthusiastic as I was to complete their classroom studies and begin the next phase of their training in patient care. Despite the rigors of medical school, student retention rates in this country remain astonishingly high at 97% (allowing for those who take some time to pursue other interests and then return to graduate).  

When I talk to new medical school graduates, I am always struck by the unique experiences that influenced their decision to choose this profession. For some, being a physician is all they ever wanted to do. Others come to medicine after another career — perhaps a military deployment where they saw the physical toll of war — or after being inspired by teaching school or volunteering in a local clinic.

When we asked people on our @aamctoday Twitter account why they went into medicine, we received poignant responses like this:

“I want to be able to give every kid with spina bifida a chance to walk, run, play, and be normal just like many neurosurgeons have done for me,” one young woman tweeted.

Or from a physician who told of saying a final goodbye to a patient she admired: “She thanked me, squeezed my hand, and looked into my eyes with that honest grateful feeling that reminded me why I went into medicine.”

Kristian Black says he was motivated to go to medical school by the need for greater diversity among doctors. “I took it personally that people of color made up such a small percentage of providers not only in my community but nationwide.”

Yet, while people’s pathways to medical school are unique and personal, there is one comment I hear from nearly all. Basically, they want to be a doctor because they want to “help” others. And that help is usually driven by a deep sense of compassion.

The power of helping others 

My own decision in college to shift focus from studying philosophy to medicine occurred in 1970 after witnessing a plane crash in the Rockies. The helplessness of watching 31 people onboard die led to a critical moment of clarity for me. After desperately trying to help those in and around the burning wreckage, I knew that I wanted to join a profession committed to helping others.

You could make the case that you absolutely must be committed to a higher purpose when you take on the challenge of medical school. Students are graduating with more debt than previous classes. Competition for residency training positions is intensifying. Students who want to pursue a career in research are finding it harder to land junior positions and secure research funding. And we are seeing troubling rates of burnout and depression among medical students, residents, and physicians.

While the hurdles to becoming a physician and the later demands of being one may be higher than ever, the extraordinary energy and excitement of these new graduates is a testament to their commitment. Moreover, those who go on to choose a career in academic medicine will be rewarded with the challenge and flexibility to blend their interests to teach, conduct research, and care for patients.

“While the hurdles to becoming a physician and the later demands of being one may be higher than ever, the extraordinary energy and excitement of these new graduates is a testament to their commitment.”

If you want to feel good about the next generation of physicians, I recommend visiting the AAMC student website where we invited students, residents, and new physicians to share what motivated them to pursue medicine.

There is a story behind every medical school application. Eric Zuniga, MD, was working as an engineer. He volunteered as a medical interpreter in the Latino community, knowing firsthand the struggles his diabetic father had in clinics. There, Zuniga regularly encountered patients asking him questions that they didn’t share with their caregivers. “Here is where I had an epiphany ... I wanted to be the person that can answer their questions. I wanted to become a physician.”
 
“With each patient I learn something new about the human condition and myself,” writes Andrew Stephen Cruz, MD. Cruz, who studied music in college and graduate school, was a pianist. He switched gears and went to medical school after becoming distressed by the homeless, uninsured people in his Texas hometown.  

Nor are you ever too old to live your dream, as Suzanne Watson, MD, reminds us. Watson found herself studying for the MCAT® exam at age 48. She was serving as an ordained minister when she lost her husband to suicide. The tragedy reignited her childhood dream to practice medicine, which she now hopes to combine with mental health advocacy.

“I have had the honor myself of helping others become physicians, caring for patients, and discovering new ways to treat their ills. I may be a little biased, but I cannot imagine a more fulfilling or challenging profession.”

What all these stories have in common is a deep desire to contribute to the public good. Correspondingly, a recent AAMC annual survey found that nearly 30% of students in the class of 2021 said they had plans to work in an underserved area eventually.

I have had the honor myself of helping others become physicians, caring for patients, and discovering new ways to treat patient ills. I may be a little biased, but I cannot imagine a more fulfilling or challenging profession.  And apparently, I am far from alone in this view. Our AAMC applicant and enrollment data for 2017 showed that medical school applicant numbers have grown more than 50% since 2002, and nearly 30% more students are entering medical school today than 15 years ago. I was especially pleased to see that the number of women entering medical school rose by 9.6% over the last two years. 

No question, you face a tough road ahead if you want to become a doctor. That is why one of our most important missions at the AAMC is to support everyone who chooses this path, from preparing students for the MCAT® exam, to providing financial guidance for their education, to offering career-long professional development and continuing education programs. 

This June, we welcome our newest colleagues to the next chapter in their medical training. We applaud their tenacity and drive to improve the state of health care in this country and beyond.  And one day, these new graduates will be the inspiration for the generation of physicians who will follow them.