The Healing Career

Today, even for doctors who put their job before their personal lives, it's a struggle to make a living - more work, for less money. Will the profession endure, or is it circling the drain?

“If the people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem wonderful at all.”

—Michelangelo

I had to become the editor of a business magazine for physicians before I learned that my father was a successful doctor. He and his partner (my mom’s brother, George Sheehan, MD, aka, the “Running Doc”), practiced together for nearly 30 years on the Jersey Shore. As personalities, they were night and day; as healers, they were a team.

Between the two of them they had 20 children (dad had eight and Uncle George had 12) and each had a devoted wife. That meant they housed, fed and clothed 24 people for more than a quarter of century. Talk about responsibility!

Well known for their skill in diagnosis and treatment, the team of Sheehan and Kelly always put their patients’ interests first. There was never any doubt in my mind that my dad’s career came first.

I must admit, as a young boy, I didn’t like the idea much (I always hungered for more time with him), but as an adult and someone who’s followed the life of physicians, I grew to admire his dedication. The guy helped a lot of people. Besides, he managed to be very good “part-time” dad.

Today, even if a doctor puts his/her patients first (as I know the vast majority do) it’s a struggle to make a living — more work, for less money. Considering dad’s top earning years as a doctor, he’d be doing pretty well right now — making about $250,000 per year adjusted for inflation.

But inflation hasn’t adjusted, at least not for doctors. Today, the average primary care doctor makes about $210,000 per year, according to the Medical Group Management Association. While hardly chump charge, when you factor in that it takes a decade of training before a penny comes due and then one-third goes to the taxman, it’s a wonder anyone is left in medical school.

I understand my father worked during the glory years of the medical profession—when doctors held near-God status — but I don’t think he was any more skilled or committed than today’s physician. I often hear about and recognize the frustration of a medical career today.

Will the profession endure? Is it as bad as one doctor recently told me: “medicine is circling the drain”? For the sake of the nation, I hope not. I’d like to hear your thoughts.