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Why we need to work to maintain a social life - A Darwinian Medical Training Programme

Written by jacob matthews · Monday 24th September 2018

Book of the week (BotW) = The Darwin Economy by Prof Frank

Being a medical student and wanna-be-surgeon, I am naturally very competitive. I know exactly where I want to end up in life. I want to be a surgeon at a major unit doing research, teaching and management, as well as many other things. To reach this goal in a rational way I, and many others like me, need to look at what is required and make sure that we tick the boxes. We must also out-compete every other budding surgeon with a similar interest.
Medicine is also a dog-eat-dog world when it comes to getting the job you want. Luckily you can head off into almost any field you find interesting, as long as you have the points on your CV to get access to the training. In recent years, the number of med students has increased, but so has the competition for places. The number of FY1 jobs has increased but so has the competition for good rotations. The number of consultant posts has increased, but so has the competition for the jobs.

To even be considered for an interview for a consultant surgeon post these days a candidate (hopefully my future self) will have to demonstrate an excellent knowledge of anatomy, physiology, pathology and demography. They will need to have competent surgical skills and have completed all of the hours and numbers of procedures. To further demonstrate this they will need to have gone on extra-curricular courses and fellowships. They will also need to show that they can teach and have been doing so regularly. They must now also have an understanding of medical leadership and have a portfolio of projects. Finally, they will have had to tick the research box, with posters, publications, oral presentations and research degrees.

That’s a long list of tick boxes and guess what? It has been getting longer! I regularly attend a surgical research collaborative meeting in Birmingham. Many of those surgeons didn’t even get taught about research at medical school or publish anything until they were registrars. Now even to get onto a good Core Training post you need to have at the very least some posters in your chosen field and probably a minimum of a publication. That’s a pretty big jump in standards in just 15 years.

In two generations the competition has increased exponentially. Why is that?

Prof Frank explains economic competition in Darwinian terms. His insights apply equally well to the medical training programme. It’s all about your relative performance compared to your peers and the continual arms race for the best resources (training posts). However, the catch is, if everyone ups their performance by the same amount then you all work harder for no more advantage for anyone, except for the first few people who made the upgrade. The majority do not benefit but are in fact harmed by this continual arms race.

I believe that this competition will only get worse as each new year of med students tries to keep up and surpass the previous cohort. This competition will inevitably lead to a greater time commitment from the students with no potential gain. Everything we do is relative to everyone else. If we up our game, we will outperform the competition, until they catch up with us and then relatively we are no better off but are working harder.

Why is this relevant?

I know everyone will want to select “the best” candidate, but in medicine the “best” candidate doesn’t really exist because we are all almost equally capable of doing the role, once we have had the training. So there is no point us all working ourselves into the ground for a future job, if all our hard work won’t pay off for most of us anyway. But we can’t make these choices as individuals because if one of us says that “I am not going to play the game. I am going to enjoy my free time with my friends and family”, that person won’t get the competitive job because everyone else will out-perform them. We have to tackle this issue as a cohort.
How do we ensure that we don’t work ourselves into the ground for nothing?

Collectively as medical students and trainees we should ask the BMA and Royal Collages to set out a strict application process that means once candidates have met the minimum requirements, there is no more points for additional effort. For instance, the application form for a surgical consultant post should only have space to include 5 peer-reviewed publications. That way it wouldn’t necessarily matter if you had 5 or 50 publications.

This limit may seem counter-intuitive and will possibly work against the highly competitive high achievers, but it will have a positive effect on everyone else’s life. Imagine if you only had to write 5 papers in your career to guarantee a chance at a job, instead of having to write 25. All that extra time you would have had to invest in extra-curricular research can now be used more productively by you to achieve other life goals, like more time with your family or more patient contact or even more time in theatre perfecting your skills.

If you were selecting candidates for senior clinicians, would you rather pick an all round doctor who has met all of the requirements and has a balanced work-life balance or a neurotic competitor who hasn’t slept in 8 years and is close to a breakdown?

Being a doctor is more than a profession, it is a life-style choice but we should try to prevent it becoming our entire lives.