Friday, 14 December 2012

Why Medicine: the question of altruism

This is something which I find crops up again and again in medicine, you are forever asked "why medicine?". Coming from a medical background people often assume that I am trying to please my father, but quite the opposite is true. He has an appalling work-life balance, is under appreciated for what he does and isn't exactly earning millions. If anything my father made me want to turn my back on a medical career.

So, "why medicine?" If I'd wanted to earn loads of money I would have worked for a bank.

So, "why medicine?" If I had wanted a good balance between personal time and my career I would have become an accountant. 

So, "why medicine?" If I had wanted appreciation for what I do then I would have become a teacher, for what higher praise is there than for people to trust you with their children's future.

This list could go on, but this is where altruism comes into play. In every single medical school application the desire to help people crops up one way or another. I personally do not believe that a single person goes into medicine purely to help people, it is impossible to do something with someone else's interest at heart. I put it to you that you cannot do anything that is not of personal benefit. Now I know that sounds rather cynical, but believe me I am not trying to be. It is merely what I believe and I also believe that millions of people around the world do great things every day for very good reasons. 

I didn't invent altruism (although being a philosopher would be amazing) but I've read a little about it and find it fascinating. So here's a crash course in altruism for those of you that aren't familiar with the concept. Here is a definition which I took from this website: "the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others". Altruism is the act of doing something for someone else, with absolutely no benefit to yourself, and I believe that true altruism cannot exist. The word was coined by Auguste Comte, a French philosopher in the 19th century. Over the years there has been a constant debate over whether true altruism can exist, but I believe that if you make yourself feel good by doing something then you have done it for yourself.

So where does this leave us? I've told you that I don't believe anyone in medicine does it to help people, so why do we do it? All I can do is tell you why I chose to do it and why I continue to do it. I've thought about this a lot and come to the conclusion that I chose medicine because it was the easy option. I went to a fantastic school where the teachers pushed us to our full potential, you were a failure if you didn't go to university. It seemed a very easy way to please my family and especially my father. It also sounds pretty good when you say I'm at medical school, everyone thinks you are fantastic. So that means I chose it because of a fear of failure, to please my family and to boost my own ego.

Well, not exactly, the real reason I chose medicine is because it isn't really choosing anything. Medicine is a fantastic degree with which you can do almost anything. If I wanted to I could use my degree to work for a bank. If I want to be an accountant I could go into medical management. If I want to be a teacher I could become a university lecturer. And that is just to name a few of the multitude of choices out there. The reason I continue to do it is that it makes me feel good. Every day my intellect is stimulated, I get to speak to loads of interesting people and best of all sometimes I can make them smile. 

So, "why medicine?" I do it for myself and I'm not ashamed to admit it. 

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