Choosing to become a physician is a series of decisions, explains Elizabeth Barnert, MD, MPH, MS. It can be a decision made in a moment or a gradual process — a pre-med class, applying to medical school and the journey through residency and fellowship.
"In other words, becoming a physician is a long process," she says.
For Dr. Barnert, an assistant professor of Pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA (DGSOM), becoming a physician was the best way she could help others. "It allowed me to combine my love for science and learning, while helping people in a way that felt meaningful and effective."
She wasn't pre-med in college, but she studied biology. She wanted to understand "how nature worked." Medicine became what she called her "back-up plan." "I knew I could become a physician because there was so much overlap between my major requirements and premed courses," she says.
While studying abroad in Central America during her junior year, Dr. Barnert contracted malaria. As she recovered, she became aware that children in nearby villages did not have access to the same life-saving treatments that she did.
"I realized the power of medicine and the importance of access to healthcare," she says. "It's a human right."
After graduation from college, Dr. Barnert traveled to India, where she worked on a malnutrition project in rural Tamil Nadu. "I met many underweight newborns. One mother turned to me and asked me how to help her 8-day-old, underweight baby. We were in the family's dark mud hut. I didn't know how to help, and in that moment, I made a commitment to become a doctor."
Things to know about choosing to become a physician
Rewarding, noble, eye opening and humbling — all words Dr. Barnert uses to describe the medical profession. "To observe closely what families go through and to be a part of their healing and growth is an honor," she says. "The gratitude of a family is priceless."
But becoming a doctor can be demanding and Dr. Barnert admits that it's often difficult to maintain a work–life balance.
"I think some of the challenge is inherent in the tasks we are asked to do, such as helping a child with advanced cancer die comfortably," she says. "Another challenge comes from a cultural perspective that encourages physicians to devalue our own health. I think the best doctors also take good care of themselves."
Expertise beyond medicine
Expectations from today's healthcare professionals are beyond just knowledge of medicine. "Excellent communication is key," says Dr. Barnert. "This includes body language and subtle aspects of communication, such as tone and the spaces between words."
As a mother, Dr. Barnert has learned firsthand how a few words from a physician can offer comfort and encouragement. "Being positive and exhibiting caring to families really makes a difference," she says.
As the field of medicine changes, along with the country, Dr. Barnert sees a need for visionary thinkers who can help solve the social ills and injustices related to healthcare access. "We need visionaries, leaders who can guide the profession towards becoming a vehicle for social justice," she says, "and also clinicians who are happy to do the everyday important work of caring for families who benefit from our help."
By Emily Williams