Why I Practice Medicine

May 14, 2021 Erin Palm
It’s Mother’s Day and I’m in the ICU as I write this. I want to share some thoughts on why I choose to be here. I have plenty to do outside the hospital, with a full time job at Suki and 3 great kids. So why do I continue to take evening and weekend calls?
 
I practice medicine because it’s a privilege. Throughout my training, my mentors taught me that my patients’ trust and my presence in their lives is a tremendous privilege. I am honored to be here.
 
Sometimes we forget. Any job can become monotonous and burdensome. Administrative requirements in the hospital can really drag you down. In a big health system, graded by patient satisfaction scores and whether our clinics run on time, it can get discouraging.
 
I’m actually lucky to be part-time. It’s not that I escape the annoyances, but they don’t weigh on me as much. Slow OR turnover? Not worth fighting or even feeling frustrated, I’ll just wait. Overdue compliance modules? I always have overdue compliance modules. It’s a fact of life, eventually they get done.
 
I’m lucky that I find surgery and ICU medicine really cool. Things that I found simple and obvious when I was a trainee have become a source of challenge and genuine pleasure in my current role. I get to practice a craft that has a real, tangible human impact. Take the hernia surgery I did on Friday night. It was just an open inguinal hernia -- so simple -- but it sure meant a lot to the patient.
 
For some of my colleagues, the learning curve flattens when they do these operations day after day, and they need a new challenge. Most of them find that challenge by adopting new techniques or taking on increasingly difficult cases. For me, I’ve actually found a new clinical learning curve in the medical ICU. My surgical critical care training serves me well in the fundamentals, but the medical patients are new for me.
 
Covid-19 made the medical ICU particularly challenging. During the worst months, my colleagues in the medical ICU were overworked and burning out, many of them actively thinking of leaving medicine. I was lucky to be part-time through those months and able to contribute while also maintaining perspective. The storm has passed for now, and my colleagues are recovering as well, but the unit can still be a really tough place.
 
Another reason I practice: the time I spend caring for patients gives me a north star in terms of purpose. Start-ups can be hard. If you’re a doctor reading this and you think the grass looks greener outside of medicine, take note. Spending some concentrated time in the hospital always serves to restore perspective and meaning, and I come away with renewed confidence in my professional direction.
 
The last reason I do this -- at risk of sounding over-confident -- is that I trained for a long time, and I’m really good at this. It’s fun to do what I’m good at. Better yet, it helps people.
 
Caring for patients is my privilege and my lifelong responsibility. There’s nothing quite like it. I am grateful for the opportunity.

About the Author

Erin Palm

Erin Palm, MD FACS is a general surgeon who practices with the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group, and serves as affiliated teaching faculty for the Stanford Department of Surgery. She completed her residency at Stanford Hospital and Clinics and fellowship in surgical critical care at LA County + USC Medical Center.

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