Many of us in Australia will remember an ad for toothpaste in the 1990s where a man (with a great toned and tanned upper torso mind you) has his back to us whilst he is facing the mirror brushing his teeth. We are told they can’t show us his face, because he is a dentist. Apart from learning about this particular brand of toothpaste (?!) we learn from this that medical professionals are not allowed to be seen in public.
For me this is a great adage of the medical profession where there is some strange notion that we should be neither seen nor heard, and this extends to many in the profession who feel constrained to be seen as a person in public, or to have and voice their opinion in public for fear of being hauled before the medical board, or having their reputation as a doctor undermined or destroyed.
Many doctors will not be on social media, have blog sites or websites, and do not want to have themselves in the public eye, lest something ‘go wrong’ and their reputations be destroyed.
But lets consider this.
Does this even make sense?
Why is it that we would feel that being seen as the person that we are would possibly get in the way of people respecting us professionally. And why do we seek so much to separate the two? Are we really such a Jekkyl and Hyde? Are we one person at work and then some strange demonic being in our private lives that we would not want anyone to know about? Surely not…
Most the people I know in medicine are lovely people, ordinary people, just like you and me…. They have families, they have partners, they have children and everything that is entailed with having children, they have health issues, they get sick like everyone else, they are often (if not usually) tired, they have things they enjoy in life, they have their favourite TV shows, (frequently Master Chef…!) and their favourite movies…. They like to travel, go on holidays, get upset or react to the same things in the media as everyone else, buy clothes, wash clothes, do their laundry take out the garbage……in short, doctors are people just like everyone else.
There appears to be this mystique in the profession that you are not allowed to disclose who you really are to your patients, and thus you cannot be seen as who you are in public in case the ‘mask’ is undone and people suddenly step aside and realize in shock ‘hey, you’re a person just like me. I thought you were my doctor who is perfect and now I see you’re just a regular person. I’m not going to see you because you have different opinions on child welfare (or insert other opinion here) to me….’
There is this fear in the profession that if you share what you really think, or how you really feel, that you will be seen as being ‘unprofessional’, that you will lose your business, people won’t trust you any more, colleagues will turn on you, people of particular religions won’t come and see you because your faith does not agree with their faith, people of particular sexual orientations won’t come and see you because your personal opinions do not reflect theirs….. if we reveal our love for the outdoors will those who are bookworms not come and see us? If we reveal our discontent with the current government will we not get jobs or will those of a particular political leaning no longer trust our professional judgment if we are not aligned with their politics?
Can we only express in public things related to our fields of profession to make sure that is the way that ‘we are seen’?
So much of how we are seen is tied up in our mystique of our professional performance and in fact you are taught to be ‘professional’: to keep people at arms length, to not get close with patients (ie people) to not let people get to know too much about you, lest they not trust or respect you any more.
In contrast, I have the found the more that I am me with my patients, the more relaxed they are, the better our relationships are and the better the therapeutic relationship is. Being personable is no barrier to the physician-patient interaction, it enriches it. It builds trust and respect as there is no hiding or pretence.
Yet in medicine, we are taught to hide behind the ‘professional’ mask at all times, even ‘off duty’!
Lets look at this more closely.
People are people and we are all people underneath it all no matter what we do.
So why is it that we feel that we can’t show ourselves to other people as people?
We all know that we are all people, so why hold ourselves as ‘doctors’ to a different standard to other people?
Do we feel that we will be seen to be less authoritative once we are seen to be equally human?
Do we feel that we will be less respected when people know about us as people? Or that people won’t listen to us when they see how we really live?
Given that health care and medicine is about people, it simply does not make sense to consider ourselves less as people, with less rights than other people, simply because we have the tag of ‘doctor’.
Tag someone ‘lawyer’ ‘banker’ ‘cleaner’ ‘student’ ‘celebrity’ and we are still all people underneath it all. We all go through life, have our opinions, issues, loves and cares. We are all the same underneath it all. No-one is better than another.
Is there really a need to seek to hide it, to pretend that we are not human like everyone else, to strive to be seen to be different to everyone else?
Does the role of doctor mean that we can’t participate in public debate or that certain topics are ‘off limits’ whereas they are not for other people?
Does the role of doctor mean that we can’t be publicly seen to have personalities, relationships, likes, dislikes, cares, opinions, senses of humour or perhaps even religious beliefs?
It simply does not make sense.
One of the biggest stresses in life, is pretending to be something you are not, holding yourself in and keeping yourself in.
We have a crisis of burnout in medicine. The root of burnout is losing who you are, conforming to a ‘role’.
Hiding ourselves or feeling the pressure or the need to be silent and not seen is contributing to our burnout as a profession when everything in us is calling out to speak freely, and to be seen freely and in full for everything that we are.
Many doctors are afraid to not only be seen on social media as a person, but also afraid to voice their opinions about medicine, the health care system, for fear of losing their jobs, their reputations, their livelihoods and if they proffer opinions they are done so on condition of anonymity, particularly if the area is controversial.
And in our collective professional silence, not only are we harming ourselves, but humanity is missing out on our perspectives, insights, wisdom and humour.
Health care is missing out.
We see it all. We have much to bring as people and with our expertise in our professional fields. There is much that is ill in health care and our silence allows it to continue. Humanity including our patients stand to benefit enormously from our free expression.
It is a fundamental human right to have freedom of expression, freedom of thought belief and ideas.
Given that is so, its interesting to ponder then why is it that we as doctors are so cautious in the way that we allow ourselves to be seen and known in public, choosing silence, or anonymity, or even carefully chosen selected ‘safe’ words, rather than expressing ourselves in full in accordance with our full human rights?
As doctors, we’ve been silent throughout the ages. Is it not time to reclaim our fundamental human rights as people, to come out of the silence, and express and express, and express in full?