SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.
Many friends from my original med school class will graduate and officially become doctors in just a few weeks. I can’t believe I'll be at that point in only a year, and I'm incredibly proud of my soon-to-be-doctor friends. This time of year there's always a lot of talk surrounding graduation, and in light of that I have a small request.
Please stop calling med school graduates "newly minted doctors."
In the past few months I've read about “newly minted doctors” dozens of times. The snappy but overused phrase is sprinkled across articles about the residency match, health-care reform and medical education. Every time I read it, I think about a gift my parents used to give my brother and me each Christmas: two envelopes of uncirculated coins, one from the mint in Denver and the other from Philadelphia. The perfect, shiny coins were sealed in plastic and presumably untouched by dirty human hands. My set of coins was indistinguishable from my brother’s, since all were cast from the same mold.
Then I picture myself and my classmates, and it strikes me that the ubiquitous metaphor of medical graduates as cold hard cash is ironic at best, and insulting at worst.
We don’t bear any of the luster or newness of those shiny, uncirculated coins. We're tarnished and grubby. We have shoes in our closets with our patients’ blood soaked into the leather. We've been endlessly passed around, trying to keep our heads above water in the culture of a new medical specialty every few weeks. We are permanently marked by the human hands that have touched our own: patients begging us for answers that we don’t have, mentors guiding us as we perform a procedure, loved ones comforting us when a patient dies.
And we certainly aren’t all cast from the same mold. Some of my classmates were the first in their families to go to college, while others come from several generations of physicians. Some had previous careers – as teachers, businesspeople, lawyers, musicians, writers – which shape how they approach medicine. Some have published their research in top scientific journals. Others devote themselves to improving health within the most marginalized populations. My colleagues aspire to become leaders in fields as diverse as science, policy, public health, education and technology. We are anything but interchangeable.
We chose to forego years of income (and many of us took on considerable debt) to enter the profession where we believed we could have the most positive impact on people’s lives. While past generations might have viewed med school as a ticket to prosperity, we knew better – there are many faster paths to greater wealth. And yet here we are, training to be doctors anyway. So evoking the greedy image of clinking coins to describe us is pretty far off the mark.
In short, what bothers me about the phrase “newly minted doctors” is that it's both dehumanizing and de-professionalizing. It downplays the years of life, learning and human connection that take place before we ever write the letters “MD” after our names. It chips away at our professional identity by reducing young doctors to an interchangeable commodity rather than individuals who have devoted years of education to become thinkers and leaders in their communities and areas of interest. Of course, I acknowledge that what new doctors do with their lives is a question of economic importance – but it is much more than that. And because the language used to refer to us influences how patients, policy-makers and society at large view us, I ask that people pause before suggesting that graduating doctors could be molded, cast and distributed as if from a mint.
Jennifer DeCoste-Lopez entered medical school at Stanford in 2010. She was born and raised in Kentucky and went to college at Harvard before heading to the West Coast for medical school. She currently splits her time between clinical rotations, a medical education project in end-of-life care, and caring for her daughter, who was born in 2013.
Photo by Grand Canyon National Park