If being a doctor is so horrible, why are med school applications at a record high?

If medicine has become as odious a profession as many practitioners seem to suggest, why are the number of medical school applicants and enrollees at an all-time high?

It’s no secret that an increased emphasis on productivity and reduced autonomy has soured many physicians.  “Simply put,” writes Dr. Daniella Drake in The Daily Beast, “being a doctor has become a miserable and humiliating undertaking.”  (Presumably, as a former top-tier management consultant, she knows a bit about miserable and humiliating undertakings.)

Yet according to the latest available data (from October 2013) from the American Association of Medical Colleges, an organization that keeps close track of these things, “a record number of students applied to and enrolled in the nation’s medical schools in 2013.”

Many economists will point to these data as representing revealed preferences which, together with still-substantial salaries, suggest that the decision by many to become a doctor remains extremely rational.

How to square two such contrasting views of the current state of medicine?

One obvious explanation is information asymmetry: practicing doctors know something that aspiring physicians don’t, and can’t imagine – or perhaps, don’t want to imagine.

In our hypercommunicative age, it’s hard to imagine that anyone seriously contemplating a career in medicine wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn what front-line providers are experiencing, for better and for worse.

More likely, I suspect that even today, medicine, for all its obvious challenges, may still offer more appeal than a range of other possible alternatives.    Not all physicians continue to encourage their children to be doctors, but I’m amazed by the number that still do.

There’s still something unique and special about medicine, and the nature of the physician-patient relationship.  Hopefully, energetic students will continue to enter the profession with a realistic sense of what they’re getting into, and the idealistic determination to make things better – long one of medicine’s defining, and most alluring, aspirations.

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