10 Physician career change lessons from Dr Atul Gawande

Number ten on craced wood desk

Number ten on craced wood desk

Atul Gawande MD MPH has mastered the art of physician career change. I say that with a little tongue in cheek for, as far as I know, he is still a practicing surgeon, and yet he’s also worked as a political adviser, a book author  (his more recent books are “The Checklist Manifesto” (A), which I haven’t yet read, and “Being Mortal“(A), a thought-provoking favorite of mine), a writer who publishes regularly in The New Yorker, and a public health researcher.

Here’s a person who has embraced physician career change in a big way – more like physician career explosion!

I recently came across an older Medscape interview of Atul Gawande done by Dr. Eric Topol in 2013 that sheds light on how this multitalented physician has chosen to expand his professional life. What I love about the interview is the light it sheds on potential professional development for physicians. How it isn’t necessary to walk away from clinical practice to pursue other passions, or to quit in order escape medical practice’s sometimes mind-numbing drudgery.

As I read, it occurred to me that there are lessons that anyone can draw, especially when contemplating a physician career change.

  1. Cultivate a sense of adventure – be open to the many possibilities that will crop up over your lifetime. In Dr. Gawande’s words: “I had majored in biology as well as in political science, and I didn’t know how I was going to put these things together. I knew I wanted to become a doctor but I was also very interested in public affairs, and it wasn’t necessarily specifically around healthcare alone.”
  2. Be curious, especially about what you don’t know … yet. He says, “I’m interested in things that are confusing to me, so I write them down.”
  3. Adopt the long view. Career change or evolution doesn’t have to happen all at once, or linearly. Gawande’s journey to becoming a surgeon had several diversions. And his writing evolved over time as well. You can develop skills or hone interests alongside your medical practice if you really want to.
  4. Be willing to experiment, and adapt to failure. According to Dr. Gawande, his first writing efforts sucked – “You’d call it a blog today, but every couple of weeks I’d have a new article and I’d start learning. My first articles were terrible.”
  5. Practice, keep at it, practice even more. He says, “And so, gradually over that time, I learned how to do at least short-form work.”
  6. Find the mentors who’ll give candid feedback and push you to new heights. He writes, “The life changers have been where I’ve gotten to be paired with people who could open up my perception of what you could do as a doctor, what was possible for you, and then offer a helping hand to say that this is how you do it well.”
  7. Enlarge your circle – talk to all kinds of people. This skill is obvious from the interview.
  8. Be provocative if you need to make a point and catch people’s attention. From the interview: “Did you get a lot of flak for trying to make that analogy between the Cheesecake Factory and medicine?
    Dr. Gawande: I always get a certain amount of flak for the things I write, and it was a little bit provocative.”
  9. Keep a notebook or log of all your ideas.  Yes, he does this too – “I keep a little list on my phone, actually, and it’s up to about 300 possible things to write about. Eighty percent of them are bad ideas.”
  10. Keep nurturing other interests – his have been writing, politics and rock music.

What can you do to expand your physician career?

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