Becoming a Doctor for the “Right Reasons” – Should That Really Matter?


NOTE: This is probably the most controversial article on the blog. I myself learned a lot from the discussion in the comments that followed, and I am willing to admit my current thoughts on this subject are quite different from when I initially wrote this. However, I think there is great educational value in keeping this article and the comments up. That being said, I would appreciate it if people read all the comments and my responses before making judgments about my perspective on the issue, as I think my initial article doesn’t explain my point of view all that well, and can lead to misinterpretations of my thoughts.

During elementary and high school, I felt as if numerous sources in society were encouraging the concept of “nobility” as the greatest thing in the world. Things like school and the media were constantly championing ideas like volunteerism, servant leadership, environmentalism, etc. to the point where it was suggested that being a “good, noble” person involved thinking and acting with those ideas in mind.

And while I myself was swept up by those ideas, especially during high school, I began noticing some problems when I entered university. I started realizing that issues aren’t as simple as we often make them to be. For instance, bring up a random high school discussion on the environment, and you often hear things like “yah, coal plants are bad! We should get rid of all of them and power our cities completely with solar energy” followed by nods of agreement. But then if you do a bit more research, you start to learn that solar panels are currently pretty expensive as well as take up a ridiculous amount of space, such that it may just not be feasible.

It seems that the more you know, and the more open you are to possibilities, the more complex the world becomes.

The concept of nobility is particularly prevalent with “premeds” and their interest in medicine. A lot of students seem taken by the idea that it’s good to be pursuing medicine for the “right reasons” – usually this refers to pursuing medicine for the sake of practicing medicine, often driven by the desire to heal others, improve lives, or an interest in a specific field of medicine. Conversely, these same students usually see it as sort of taboo to be pursuing medicine for the money or prestige.

Personally, while I am generally interested in people’s motivations for what they do, I don’t think it is right to judge a medical school applicant solely on their intentions. I think it’s wrong, and kind of illogical, to immediately associate noble intentions with good and not-so-noble intentions with bad, in terms of being a physician.

The Patient’s Perspective

If I am a sick or suffering patient, I want a doctor who can help me. I could care less if he is the most passionate physician – if he can’t help me, then I’m not better off. For me, and I think for most patients, the most important thing is that our physician is competent enough to help and treat us. I don’t see a physician to admire her dedication and love for her job – I see her because I need to be helped. In short, I’d much rather be a healthy, living human being saved by a physician driven by money and prestige than dead because my physician was incompetent but noble.

Of course, you could argue that a more passionate physician is likely to go above and beyond for your care, but when it comes down to it, I feel that a physician’s competency is way more important than their motivations.

It’s Still Like Any Other Job

When you get rid of all the smoke and dust, being a doctor is still a job. It sort of irritates me when I see students putting the idea of a physician on a pedestal and seeing it as some sort of magical career. It also annoys me when I hear about students in medical school calling themselves the “cream of the crop” from undergrad programs and stuff like that, as if being in medical school means that they are “better” than other people in aspects that matter more than anything else.

It makes no sense to view being a doctor differently from any other job. There’s no reason why I should be obligated to have certain ideals or values about money or prestige if I am a physician compared to any other job.

How many times have you taken up a summer job solely for the money? Does it make you a bad person if you chose to work for more money at a computer business instead of protecting and saving lives as a lifeguard at the local pool for less?

So why is it so bad even if someone pursues medicine only for the financial stability / success it could bring?

When it comes down to it, the only reason I would care about someone’s motivations is if it affects their performance. And I doubt you could find a strong enough correlation to show that physicians driven by money and prestige are significantly worse at their jobs than physicians with more “noble” motivations.

I mean, while I’m sure some people will contend that these not-so-noble intentions could create lazy physicians, it’s just as possible for these intentions to produce positive results. If a doctor wants to make a lot of money, they are going to work efficiently and try to see more patients (if you are one of those patients who hates sitting in waiting rooms for hours, you might like this). Or if they are seeking prestige, they are going to work harder, take on more difficult cases, spend more time doing groundbreaking research, etc.

We Don’t Even Analyze Noble Intentions for Other Jobs

If I am business owner looking for someone to manage my store, I want someone who I think would do a good job and accumulate the most profit possible. I mean, would I really care if someone is genuinely passionate about managing the store?

Or if I am interested in hiring a student to mow my lawn for the summer, should I not hire him because he doesn’t absolutely love cutting grass?

Or if I am the general manager of a sports team, I wouldn’t care if the best player in the league is driven only by money and prestige, and is not genuinely passionate about playing the game. My goal is to build the most competitive team possible, and if that player helps me win, then I’m happy to sign him regardless of his motivations.

So why the double standard with a career in medicine?

I think it’s because of this obsession with nobility that we obtain through our youth. We become sort of idealistic, and think about people as “good” or “bad”, though I’m still trying to figure out why this is particularly prevalent with medical careers.

All in all, I don’t think it’s quite fair to be so quick to judge, and I think you are missing out on a lot if you are too busy forcing certain idealism on others instead of stepping back and thinking about why other people are viewing things differently from you.

  • Slope of a tangent line

    “I shadowed a few doctors this last summer for a few weeks, and I found that people who truly care for their patients end up with the higher social status/more money, etc.”


    Yes, it is very good to notice that doctors who care about their patients end up with higher status and wealth, that is what is truly important here. You can be competent and like _doing_ something without having this honorable desire towards helping humanity. This is sort of what the post is about, this externally expressed “nobility” often hides desires that are not considered so noble. The driving force is also prestige and money more so than helping. Which is not necessarily to mean they are inherently bad. It’s just a bit false to hide under that hat.