Remember When Doctors Were Heroes?

By KAREN SIBERT, MD (3)

For several years now, I’ve been the social media curmudgeon in medicine. In a 2011 New York Times op-ed titled “Don’t Quit This Day Job”, I argued that working part-time or leaving medicine goes against our obligation to patients and to the American taxpayers who subsidize graduate medical education to the tune of $15 billion per year.

But today, nine years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, I’m more sympathetic to the physicians who are giving up on medicine by cutting back on their work hours or leaving the profession altogether. Experts cite all kinds of reasons for the malaise in American medicine:  burnout, user-unfriendly electronic health records, declining pay, loss of autonomy. I think the real root cause lies in our country’s worsening anti-intellectualism.

People emigrated to this country to escape oppression by the well-educated upper classes, and as a nation we never got past it. Many Americans have an ingrained distrust of “eggheads”. American anti-intellectualism propelled the victory of Dwight Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson – twice – and probably helped elect Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Donald Trump.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that American anti-intellectualism today is exclusive to religious fundamentalists and poorly educated people in rural areas. Look at the prevalence of unvaccinated children in some of America’s most affluent neighborhoods, correlating with the location of Whole Foods stores and pricey private schools. Their parents trust Internet search results over science and medical advice.

Remember when physicians were heroes?

For a long time, physicians were exempt from America’s anti-intellectual disdain because people respected their knowledge and superhuman work ethic. The public wanted doctors to be heroes and miracle workers. The years of education and impossibly long hours were part of the legend, and justified physician prestige and financial rewards. Popular TV series in the ‘60s and ‘70s lionized the dedication of Ben Casey, Marcus Welby, Dr. Kildare, and Hawkeye Pierce. In real life, heart surgeons Michael DeBakey, who performed the first coronary bypass operation in 1964, and Christiaan Barnard, who performed the first heart transplant in 1967, became famous worldwide.

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