The stigma of the non-practicing doctor: a study in mythology

Saturday, March 25, 2017 Stef dela Cruz, MD 4 Comments

These are some of the myths I eventually debunked as a doctor who chose to write for a living. (If you haven’t yet, I recommend that you click that link and read it first.)

follow your dream

If you’re a doctor who’s on the fence about being one, this is for you. If you’re someone who might not know how to act or what to say if you meet a doctor who tells you s/he’s not practicing medicine, then this is for you, too.

Myth #1:

Doctors who don’t practice medicine are wasting their education

They say your education is the one thing they can’t steal from you. They have a point.

Education does not have to go to waste. What you learn stays with you, whether or not your profession is an expected consequence of your course.

You can use your education in many ways, even after you make the choice not to pursue the profession you originally thought was for you. When you’re going after a dream, you can’t really be “wasting” anything.

But you know what can truly go to waste? The rest of your life, if you keep fooling yourself into living it based on how others want you to.


Myth #2:

Doctors who pursue a different career lack resilience

There’s resilience, and then there’s obstinacy.

Regardless of the profession you choose, what reasons should you have for deciding to jump ship? When do you haul ass and when do you stay right where you are?

If you stay a doctor although it’s killing you and, consequently, your potential patients, does it make you resilient or just plain dumb?

Some people persevere in medicine despite everything and they’re better people for it. Some people choose a different path and they’re also better people for it.

Sadly, you – and everybody else, for that matter – do not have the benefit of the complete story to judge whether or not a doctor’s career choice is the best one.


Myth #3:

Asking all medical graduates to practice medicine solves many healthcare issues

The shortage of doctors in the Philippines is a real problem. Six out of every ten patients die without ever seeing a doctor.

However, there’s really not much use for a doctor who isn’t doing a good job because his heart is just not in it. More often than not, we are best at what we love doing.

Unfortunately, some doctors realize late in the race that the medical field is not for them, explaining in part why many finish medicine yet do not practice it.

Others, however, stay in clinical practice despite the dire need to take a breather. Even with doctor-shortage issues, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

You’ve probably heard of the couple who blamed an obstetrician-in-training for losing their baby. You’ve probably heard of the emergency room patient who took to social media to expose another hospital for their allegedly abysmal service.

There’s a common current underlying the above issues. It’s called compassion fatigue. Here’s the problem: Many doctors wouldn’t dare admit to themselves – more so to others – that they are compassion-fatigued and in need of a break.

Case in point: The vitriol with which doctors and other health professionals fought back via Facebook commentaries, spouting hatred against “epal patients who don’t know what they’re talking about”.

It got ugly and I have the Facebook newsfeed to prove it.

Some doctors feel that the public is being reckless for expressing opinions without really knowing the entire truth. On the other hand, many patients feel that doctors should make an effort to show more compassion and if they couldn’t, then they shouldn’t practice anymore. And then there’s the issue of how doctors should behave online especially if they’re not too happy about a patient.

Both camps have a point. Yes, let the willing doctor stay and let him listen to his patients – even the ones who look rabid with anger. Yes, let the doctor who begrudges his profession (and the allegedly-stupid public who happens to be his patient pool) say sayonara to his profession.

And that, dear reader, is one of the many reasons it’s not a good idea to ask doctors to hang around and “be resilient no matter what”. Emotionally blackmailing compassion-fatigued doctors into staying actually contributes to the problem instead of solving it.


Myth #4:

Doctors who don’t practice are failures

If I’m a failure, then I’m happy to be one.

I’m not being sarcastic. I’m happy with the choice I made – I can say with conviction that the years following my decision to pursue a new career are the happiest so far – which means I’m categorically “happy” to be a so-called “failure”.

Leaving practice was a difficult choice for me. I remember forcing myself to love a certain specialization, brainwashing myself into thinking it was the perfect field for me because I didn’t want to leave at the time.

I eventually learned to accept the truth that my specialization-of-choice was not my “best choice”. Instead, it was the bitter pill which I found easiest to swallow.

Every night, I dreaded going to sleep because it meant waking up to something I didn’t want to do and pursuing a career I had already fallen out of love with. I was miserable but didn’t have the courage to admit that taking up medicine was not my best decision.

It was only after I finally followed my heart’s desire that I had my first epiphany: I loved studying medicine! However, I didn’t want to practice it.

Medicine will always be a great love of mine. However, it’s not the career I want to be married to. Medicine will be a forever-friend, a BFF – but we are not meant to be because I have a different soulmate: the written word. #FriendzonedMedicine

Shortly thereafter, I had a second epiphany: Success was not what I originally thought it to be.

Success does not come in the form of peer approval – instead, it comes in the form of self-fulfilment. It means meeting my own expectations, not that of others.

Success means looking forward to waking up every morning because you’re doing what you know you’re born to do. It means knowing that the path you’re on is the one that fate intended for you.

Success, in a nutshell, means that your soul approves.

I also realized that staying would have been the easier choice. Leaving was the harder option. Leaving made a braver, more honest person out of me.

Leaving made me succeed.


Doctor’s orders: follow your heart

Doctor or not, if you allow others to live vicariously through you, then you might as well be wasting your life.

You are given one life. Don’t waste it on dreams not your own! Follow your heart – that is, if you can.

I add that caveat, “if you can”, because not everyone will have the luxury to pursue a career they’re passionate about. Following your dream comes at a price. Telling everyone to always follow their dream is tantamount to ignoring the many unique circumstances that can influence a person’s decision.

However, if you’re lucky enough to have the resources to realize your full potential, go for it! It may or may not mean a career change – your story does not have to be written the same way as mine. (Here are many second careers for you courtesy of Medscape if you feel that medicine isn’t your true calling after all.)

I then leave you with my last epiphany, the one that made me stop apologizing for what I truly wanted to do with my life: No, I am not a failure after all.

Failure, you see, does not feel this good.

You might also want to read this:

What should you do when you don’t want to be a doctor anymore?
(And why can’t everyone heed their calling?)

Stef dela CruzAbout the blogger
Stef dela Cruz is a vegan doctor and writer. She received the 2013 Award for Health Media from the Department of Health. She is the editor of The Manila Bulletin's Animal Scene Magazine. Get in touch if you want to invite her as a speaker!


  1. I agree with what you've mentioned above. I adore you for stepping up in finding your true life purpose. Keep it up because that's where success is.

    1. Thanks, Mary! Glad you took the time to leave a comment. Do stay connected.

  2. This post is empowering. May you continue to bless others with your writings.

    1. I am glad it empowers you, Sheen! Yes, I will keep writing until my last days on earth. I hope to touch the lives of as many future doctors as possible.

      Keep in touch on Instagram, okay? I love hearing from people who connect with me.