Forget Money- Doctors Have a Social Obligation


Doctors have a social obligation

This blog’s niche is money in medicine. I try to teach other current or aspiring doctors about personal finance and how the business of our healthcare system operates. These are incredibly important topics because personal finance is woefully misunderstood, especially in the medical community. Also, many doctors went into medicine disliking business and not wanting to be involved in any way in the business side (especially employed doctors.)

In the U.S. the average after-tax savings rate is 5.7% and only 48% of people are invested in the stock market. Those are scary numbers, so I try to provide some real world and some extreme examples to wake people up to what being financially savvy can do to your life.

That said, money is hardly everything in life, and I believe that doctors have a social obligation to the world. Dedicating your time to serving those in need will be so much more valuable to you than spending your entire life accumulating wealth. The quote below is the quote that has rang through my head for the past few years because of how true it is in my experience.

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

-John Bunyan

A Unique Ability

Doctors have the ability to help others like no other. Think of a lawyer, investment banker, accountant, news reporter, engineer. Can any of them help people the needy in an impoverished country (or a wealthy country) like the doctor? Engineers might come the closest as they could build a structure that could deliver clean water in a remote African village; however, in the more developed parts of the world there is not nearly as much they can do to help.

All of those people can still donate their money and their time, which is still great, but their time is not nearly as valuable as a doctor’s time. Their expertise is not usually valuable to the needy, so all they really can be is an extra set of hands possibly working on some project. That said, they should still donate their time and money to the benefit of others and equally to themselves.

Money is an interesting point because people with serious money can set up foundations like the Clinton Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation is the largest charitable organization in the world with a $43B endowment. It focuses on health disparities in poorer countries abroad and on educational disparities in the U.S.

The Gates Foundation can offer everything and more that the lawyer and accountant can offer to the needy; however, no matter how much money an individual or foundation has, they still can’t do what a doctor does.

What Doctors Are Needed the Most?

According to the WHO, non-communicable diseases cause 88% of deaths in high income counties but only 37% in low income countries. In the  United States cardiac disease, cancer, and lower respiratory disease cause over 50% of deaths each year, but it is a different case in the developing world. Over 50% of deaths there are caused by by communicable diseases, conditions during pregnancy and childbirth, and nutritional deficiencies.

The Gates Foundation has actually done a great job vaccinating people in low income countries. Their goal is to eradicate polio and malaria, and to control the spread of HIV and tuberculosis. Due in part to their efforts, India recently announced that it is polio free. While the foundation’s efforts will save more lives than what any doctors can accomplish, doctors are still needed.

Based on those numbers family practice doctors, pediatricians, infectious disease doctors, and obstetricians could really help people in low income countries around the world. Surgeons are definitely needed as well, but probably not quite as frequently. Doctors like pathologists and radiologists who rely on expensive technology (that is not available in developing countries) to do their work would have to brush up on their primary care to offer their services. All doctors have a social obligation equally, but some can lend their services more easily.

Even in the U.S. there is a great need for doctors services in low income communities and rural areas. We have the equipment here that allows all types of doctors to serve.

Personal Examples

I know a number of doctors that have gone to developing countries to offer their services. Recently, I listened to a speaker who was a family practice doctor who routinely goes to the jungle areas of Ecuador to serve. He goes for long periods of time (6+ months to 1 year) and brings his family. It’s an extremely remote an un-developed area that he admitted really strained his relationship with his wife when she was there, but he loves it.

As a less extreme example, an ophthalmologist I knew in high school would go to northern Africa for a few weeks out of the year to do retinal surgeries. Natives who had been blinded from diseases would travel huge distances to see him. It was a pretty moving story.

My Example


Doctors Have a Social Obligation

I have some experience donating my time like this (just not going to remote locations to do it.) I volunteer 1-2 weeks of my summer each year at Camp John Marc, a camp for kids with chronic conditions. It’s an amazing place that features campers with a different condition each week.  John Marc has a huge team of counselors (me), nurses, child life specialists, and a doctor on site who specializes in whatever condition it is that week. This is along with all of the medical equipment required like dialysis machines for the renal disease week that I went to. Most of the kids have never been able to travel anywhere because of their immediate need for specialists and medical equipment wherever they go.  Also, there is no fee to go to the camp (major donations are required), so there is a wide socioeconomic range of kids that come.

My job is nothing medically related. It’s just to be their friend and push them to be more independent (often these kids are babied by their parents.) They can do a lot more than you think. One of my campers is paralyzed from the waist down and can swim as well as I can. Another one was born without thighs, yet he is always trying to play football with me, and he’s actually really good. Being their friend is the best part, and I learned that I have a passion for kids from that experience.

While I was pretty hesitant to go at first 5 years ago, it ended up being the best week of my year. Now I’m one of the only counselors to go for multiple weeks because of how demanding just one week is. I have to give up around $1,000 in lost wages when I go, which is a lot of money for a kid, but a thousand dollars is pretty meaningless compared to the amazing experience it is for me. For this reason I know that I’d be more than happy to donate my time and money for causes like this when I am a doctor.

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

-John Bunyan

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