The advice physicians would give their younger selves

Eighteen physicians recently joined Becker's to share the advice they would give their younger selves.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. If you would like to contribute to our next question, please email Paige Haeffele at

Question: What advice would you give your younger self when you were first entering the field of medicine?

Samuel Bauer, MD. Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Duke University and Medical Director at Duke Perinatal Consultants of Durham (Durham, N.C.): There are several pieces of advice that I would give my younger self entering the field of medicine. It starts with a quote from Helen Keller.

"Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood."

Looking back on a career in medicine and healthcare leadership, there are several words of wisdom.

Stay committed to learning. Medicine is constantly changing and evolving. By starting early and remaining committed to lifelong learning through conferences and reading, you will strengthen both your professional development as well as your foundation as a physician. Many feel that learning ends with medical training, but nothing could be closer from the truth.

Develop strong communication skills. Effective communication is vital in medicine and healthcare delivery. It is a skill that requires training and practice to be able to navigate complex medical information with patients and their families and provide clear empathetic communication. Prioritize self-care. The demands of a medical career can be intense, and burnout is a real risk at different stages in a physician's professional career. Take time for yourself. Maintain a healthy work-life balance, which is different for everyone. Get enough rest and exercise and don't be afraid to seek out help and support.

Medicine is a team sport and a collaborative field. Know yourself and your personality and leadership style. Learn how you work best with others and recognize the value of a multidisciplinary approach to patient care.

Seek mentorship. Find experienced mentors who can provide guidance, share knowledge and help navigate through the challenges of a medical career. Mentorship can be invaluable in your professional development.

Be adaptable. As they say, change is one of the only constants in medicine. Healthcare is full of uncertainties and situations that can change. Being flexible and adaptable to your approach to patient care and problem-solving will make you a stronger physician. Don't be afraid of uncertainty. Embrace the unknown and be ready to change. Some of the best opportunities in life occurs during times of uncertainty.

Stress management. Learn early on healthy ways to cope with the stress of the medical profession. Exercise, spending time with family and friends, meditation, yoga and developing what works for you can be an invaluable investment in your self-esteem and mental health.

Jeff Carstens, MD. Medical Director of the Cardiovascular Service Line, UnityPoint Health Des Moines (Iowa): I would tell myself to keep an open mind to opportunities that arise on your career path and everything will work out. I never imagined myself as a U.S. Navy physician, a cardiologist or as a cardiology leader, but all have been great experiences that I am glad that I embraced. Also, be prepared to continue to learn for the rest of your career, because healthcare is always evolving.

Themistocles Dassopoulos, MD. Director, Baylor Scott and White Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (Dallas): I would advise a young physician to develop his/her emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is key to personal growth, high-quality patient care and improved performance as a member and leader of the healthcare team.

Payam Farjoodi, MD. Orthopedic Spine Surgeon at Coastline Orthopaedic Associates (Fountain Valley, Calif.): I would emphasize the need to take care of myself physically, emotionally and mentally. Our training focuses on putting patient needs above all else, but we need to balance the sacrifices we make with our own well being to promote sustainability in our careers and prevent burnout. I have come to appreciate the importance of this more as I have matured in my own practice. 

Bruce Gomberg, MD. Director of Maine Orthopaedic Review (Portland): The first piece of advice I’d give my younger self is to pick a field that you enjoy, because your career quickly becomes a large part of your life. In that vein, I would also advise a young surgeon to do what it takes to hone their craft. Some find an early mentor, which I did by sheer luck, and some seek further training. In any event, I recommend doing what it takes to get on top of your game early. Learn the ins and outs of the operations you do most and get the most experience as soon as you can. Be kind and thank the crew helping you on a daily basis, all focused on making your life easier and having better patient outcomes. 

Another valuable piece of advice I would give my younger self is a piece of advice that was given to me by one of my teachers. When he heard I was going through training with young children, he told me that the most valuable thing I can do as an orthopedic surgeon is to go to as many of their Little League games as I could. I tried hard to follow that advice and be involved with my kids’ lives, because they’re only your little kids for a brief and fleeting moment. 

Another piece of advice I’d give my younger self is to be a genuinely good person. In general, as times get more stressful, careers take more effort and more demands are made on one’s life, it’s really important to leave a legacy that the world's a little better for being here. It’s not always easy to do, but find ways to be kind. 

I’d advise my younger self to be as financially proactive as possible, have a solid financial plan developed by a professional, and stick to it. Just as you expect people to come to you as an expert in the field, you should find a well-respected financial planner and follow their plan. Don’t do it on your own.

Lastly, I’d advise my younger self to find the positives in my chosen career, because there are increasingly more difficulties in the field of medicine, most totally beyond anyone’s control. It’s worth remembering that we chose this career to help people, so focus on that. It’ll facilitate making lemonade out of the lemons being tossed your way. 

Deborah Greer, MD. Medical Director of Advisory Service at Sequoia Hospital (Redwood City, Calif.): When I first entered the medical field, I didn't fully grasp the broader impact I could have beyond individual patient care. Initially focused solely on improving the health of my patients, I missed early opportunities to influence larger public health outcomes through advocacy and leadership roles.

I would advise my younger self that although it’s vital to learn the practice of medicine, actively engage in larger community and healthcare conversations early on. Understand and address the needs of the community, become an active participant in shaping healthcare policies and practices, and collaborate with others to determine broader changes that will positively affect the community.

Find a mentor who advocates for your development and fosters your leadership capabilities, preparing you to mentor others in return. Additionally, prioritize building meaningful relationships with others that will enhance your personal and professional growth and empower you to make consequential contributions to advance public health priorities. Overall, your goal should be to not only excel in the practice of medicine but to actively contribute to improving your community’s health outcomes, as this will add to your fulfilling career. 

Samuel Kim, MD. Cardiologist and Director of Preventive Cardiology at NewYork-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center (New York City): The reality of practice of medicine is very different than what I envisioned it would be like when I was first entering the field of medicine. During the initial phases of training, it remains a very individualistic sport focused on individual achievement to get into medical school, residency or fellowship. However, once you are in practice, medicine becomes a much more team sport where other skill sets like negotiation, conflict resolution and leadership play a greater role. My first advice to my younger self would be to invest more time in early phases learning the "soft skills" such as negotiation and leadership (even if it's simply reading a good book on these topics once in a while) because these are not taught traditionally in a medical school classroom. Your ability to "get things done" is less dependent on your actual medical knowledge but more on your interpersonal relationships with others. 

In terms of a second piece of advice, I would say it is important to try to learn the business and policy of medicine. I think something like Becker's Healthcare is a great resource to understand what is happening in the field of medicine. Every day try to spend at least 15 minutes reading business/policy news in healthcare because I really think it changes the way you understand how medicine works. Get involved in your specialty's society groups since this can often be a place as an initial place to learn these skills. 

Third, spend as much time learning from the support staff like nurses, medical assistants/techs or phlebotomists. Many of the practical skill sets I have learned from them, and they give you a totally different perspective on the challenges of medicine. It's so easy to forget sometimes that they are powerful stakeholders/advocates for any operational decision-making.

Lastly, constantly update your personal mission, vision and value statement from time to time. I wish I had done this earlier in training because what you want both professionally and personally are going to constantly change. Medical knowledge in a lot of ways is the easiest part because you will gain this from day to day experience. It's more important to constantly re-evaluate the "why I practice medicine" question every now and then. Otherwise it can feel like you are just running on the treadmill of medicine every day doing the same things over and over again.

Yuying Luo, MD. Gastroenterologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System (New York City): Remember that it is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be many hard days and grueling shifts, so give yourself grace. Find what sparks joy in your day-to-day. For me, it is my relationships with my patients. I've saved positive and encouraging messages from patients that I go back to whenever I have a particularly tough day. It is also equally important to nourish your relationships outside medicine; cherish time with friends and family as they will be your greatest support. 

Robert McAlindon, MD. Orthopedist at East Alabama Health (Opelika): I was fortunate to have outstanding mentors both in my residency and fellowship. I got two pieces of advice that I carry to this day.

First, your reputation will be determined in the first six months of your practice. You are among the most highly skilled and trained professionals in the country. Make sure each of your cases are perfect and have the absolute best outcomes. You CAN do really big, complex cases but you SHOULD do the procedures that you have the best handle on. Start easy,  develop a reputation for having great results and let the intricate, tougher cases come later.

Second, get to know your patients. You will meet thousands and they are fascinating. Each has a story to tell. Be patient and listen. Be invested. They are, after all, putting their life in your hands.

Brendan McGuire, MD. Professor of Medicine and Medical Director of Liver Transplant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham: I have been in medicine for over 33 years and have been proud to have witnessed major changes that have improved patient care, but have also dealt with the necessary, but painful inefficiencies from electronic medical records. What has not changed through the years has been the bonding between patients, their family and physicians.  I would choose medicine all over again.   

Shalini Modi, MD. Associate Medical Director of Heart and Vascular Service Line at Henry Ford Health and Service Chief of Cardiology at West Bloomfield Henry Ford Hospital (Detroit): I would tell my younger self that it’s not about grades anymore in the field of medicine. Grades are important but also understand the socioeconomic environment where a physician practices. There are leadership opportunities available today which were not available to women in my generation and that simply states that having an open mind set towards growth and learning lifelong will make medicine fun and worth running the marathon that the practice of medicine has become. Must embrace change and adapt and iterate as the situation demands.

John Pandolfino, MD. Gastroenterologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University (Chicago): To focus more on emotional intelligence than just medical knowledge and research skill development. Emotional intelligence is involved in every aspect of your career, and continued self-reflection and learning from mistakes is crucial to a career in academic medicine.

Kalyani Perumal, MD. Interim Chair, Division of Nephrology and Medical Director of Hemodialysis Services at Cook County Health (Chicago): As I reminisce from the vantage point of 25 years of experience in this field, I can't help but reflect on how this profession demands far more than medical knowledge, expertise and compassion. For decades, doctors have been regarded as “unsung heroes” who are selfless, dedicated and always ready to lend a helping hand, not alone in their workplace but also within their communities. This enduring image has given rise to unspoken expectations, both from within and the communities they serve. It is very challenging for a physician to say "I need time to focus on myself and my needs." Many struggle with feelings of guilt to think that they deserve their space to reflect, recharge and rejuvenate for their personal growth. I was one among them who believed that admitting such needs was a sign of weakness, that I should always be available for others, even at the cost of my own well-being.

As we all know, this endless self-sacrifice leads to burnout and compassion fatigue. If I could turn back time and speak to that high school girl, I would say this to her: “While you are diligently acquiring knowledge and preparing yourself to heal others, do not lose sight of your needs. Develop self-awareness and become an advocate of your own well-being. Self-care is not being selfish but critical to become the best doctor that you aspire to be."

In this current medical era, it is crucial to remember that our capacity to heal and care for others is intrinsically linked to our own well-being. We must eliminate the notion that taking time for our own needs is a sign of weakness. In fact, it is a sign of courage, resilience and empowerment.

Over the years, I have realized that self-care is not a luxury; it is the critical element that makes one achieve their highest potential in their lives. It is finding a balance between themselves and the different roles they play in their lives.

As I look back on my journey, I realize that my mother’s words still ring true: "You should remember that you are not a doctor, only when you have your stethoscope around your neck. You are a doctor at all times; always be ready to help people in need." To live up to this calling, we must exercise our own right to self-care, recognizing that this is an essential component of our commitment to heal others.

So, to all aspiring doctors and experienced professionals alike, remember that our journey is not just about caring for others, it is also about caring for ourselves. There is no such thing called perfect balance between our personal and professional lives, but it is an ongoing journey to find the sweet spot where you savor your work to the fullest while living the enjoyable life you’ve always envisioned.

Sean Rajaee, MD. Joint Replacement Surgeon and Co-Director of the Outpatient Hip and Knee Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (Los Angeles): Medicine and surgery is an art. Listen to your patients and customize treatment while incorporating all of your training and expertise. There is no one-size-fits-all mentality in orthopedic surgery. As young surgeons come into practice, there is a tendency to make protocols and algorithms for every clinical scenario.   However, it doesn't always work like that. Sometimes you have to veer in a slightly different direction than the "textbook" answer to better care for the patient and as long as you're doing it for a good reason, you are doing the right thing.  

Richard Reich, MD. Internist and Infectious Disease Specialist at UW Health Internal Medicine Clinic (Madison, Wis.): I was advised to disregard remuneration when choosing a specialty. This was bad advice. It should be a major consideration along with intrinsic interest and lifestyle.

Shawn Safford, MD. Medical Director of Pediatric Services and Professor of Surgery at UPMC and Pediatric Surgeon at UPMC Children's Harrisburg (Pa.): Looking back on my early years in practice, I'd like to share the following advice with my younger self:

  • Keep patients at the forefront of your focus. It's easy to get distracted and lose sight of what truly matters by the end of a hectic day. Patients and their families rely on your guidance throughout their healthcare journey. Always prioritize what's best for the patient.
  • Recognize that nothing in medicine is accomplished in isolation. Remember your team, which includes partners, residents, fellows, advanced care providers and nursing staff. As a surgeon, while much of your impact may occur in the operating theater, a patient's overall outcome depends on the collective efforts of the entire team.
  • Embrace vulnerability as a means to become a better physician and colleague. Being vulnerable doesn't equate to weakness; it signifies your commitment to self-improvement. Continuously strive to enhance your skills as a physician.
  • Don't forget your family. No matter how busy or challenging your job becomes, always acknowledge that your significant other plays a vital role in maintaining stability at home. Take time to inquire about their day and consider their challenges as important as your own.
  • Cultivate an inquisitive mindset. Never stop questioning the "why" and "what" of your actions. We encourage resident education because they challenge the status quo and help us evolve our practices, particularly when faced with established dogma.

Larry Spector, DO. Internist at Temple University Hospital (Philadelphia): My advice would be to take the opportunity to learn the business of medicine along with learning how to care for patients. To be a successful physician, one must know how to work with insurance companies for reimbursements and referrals. Currently I am the physician leader for our health system's post-acute care network. I now interact with skilled nursing facilities and home health companies who care for our ACO patients. Up until a few years ago I did not know what an ACO was or how our patients were impacted by the care they receive outside of the hospital. 

Also get involved in your health system by volunteering to be on a few committees to learn the health system and meet colleagues. This will start the process of being a leader in the health system. Currently I am the chair of the readmission committee. 

Eric Warren, MD. Medical Director of the Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute Sports Medicine Network (Charlotte, N.C.): When I first came out of training, I really had no idea as to the complexity of the business side of medicine. In many ways medicine is a business like any other business. You have to be aware of the customer experience as well as revenue, expenses, timeliness of payments, etc.  And that's all while providing compassionate, patient-centered, evidence-based care — what my training focused on. The other thing that took me years to learn, and that I wish the younger me knew sooner, is the importance of being mindful and fully present with the patient who is in front of me. It's so easy to be distracted by a hectic/overbooked schedule, patient calls that have yet to be answered, prior authorizations that the patient is waiting on me to find time for, or internal clinic dynamics with a staff that may be busy covering multiple provider needs. But all of that is outside of the walls of the exam room, and the patient in front of me needs and deserves my full focus.

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