The BMJ Today: The versatility of medical careers

Tiago_VillanuevaSince its inception, the BMJ has never ceased publication, even when London—where the British Medical Association is based—was being bombed during the Second World War. At the time, victims of air raids were being treated and operated on by dedicated and courageous doctors like Diana Mary Brinkley. Diana, who later went on to train in radiotherapy in Cambridge, carried out research that led to a number of clinical trials that shaped the contemporary treatment of breast cancer. Her career and legacy are remembered in a new obituary.

Many other doctors also ended up developing fascinating careers during the Second World War. James Wilson Fleming, who travelled the world as a ship’s doctor in the merchant navy with a crew that didn’t speak English, ended up settling as a GP in the UK. He performed operations, delivered babies at home and in hospital, and even went out in the lifeboat when needed. He is also remembered in another newly published obituary.

It may seem obvious that most doctors end up finding fulfilment and meaning in their careers through the practice of clinical medicine, whether that entails attending to an 82 year old man presenting to a UK hospital with a six day history of watery diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and confusion (check out our most recent Endgames picture quiz), or treating a patient with extensively drug resistant tuberculosis in South Africa (the subject of a new BMJ blog.)

But for some doctors, it works out exactly the opposite way. For Jennifer Dixon, who is currently the chief executive of the Health Foundation charity, her best career move was leaving clinical medicine to pursue policy analysis through public health. She felt she could be more useful as a “synthesiser—seeing patterns across a lot of information” than as a “dissector—pushing the boundaries in any one furrow.” She is the latest mover and shaker in the medical world to be interviewed for BMJ Confidential.

Versatility is probably one of the advantages of a medical career, but sometimes doctors question the path they chose. Jennifer Hughes, who has felt the frustration of not being able to offer a patient with extensively drug resistant tuberculosis more than “a 20% chance (at best) to live,” sometimes wishes she had become “a water engineer, a city planner, or a school teacher.” Despite the versatility, nobody said improving healthcare was easy…

Tiago Villanueva is the editorial registrar, BMJ.