The Generation of Physicians Before Me Had It Made

Image: Koshelev Alexey / shutterstock

It is a known fact that every generation feels that they had it worst and that other generations had it made.

My background: I identify myself with the Generation X physicians, having been born in 1971, finishing medical school in 1997, and finishing my radiology residency and fellowship training in 2003. I have been practicing as a board-certified radiologist since that time, logging more than 15 years and counting. During this time I have seen quite a change in the medical landscape, some changes for the better, others not so much so.

My Predecessors: Ahhhh, the medical generation that I am most envious of. These "Baby Boomer" physicians, which my father was a part of before he died at the age of 50, are widely considered to have practiced in "The Golden Age of Medicine." These physicians were truly "captains of their own ship."

A physician, based on his or her expertise through years of accumulating medical knowledge, was deemed wise enough to make the appropriate decisions regarding patient care without the need for approval or second-guessing by non-medical entities such as insurance companies/HMOs or the government.

Being a physician meant something in these times. Physicians were treated with the utmost respect. My father would often say that no matter what they were doing, nurses would all stand up in respect whenever a physician first entered the hospital wards. Physician-patient relationships were at an all-time high. On more than one occasion, my father would bring home gifts that patients had brought in to show their appreciation.

One particular gift brings back fond memories. A patient came to our home and brought a large bag of meat to show his appreciation. I remember my mom saying thank you, these chicken drumsticks look fantastic. The patient replied, "No Ma'am, these are not chicken, but rather frog legs." My mom promptly screamed and dropped the bag.

This was also the time that pensions were more widely available before corporate America decided it would be financially prudent to shift the burden of retirement to the employee rather than the company. Social Security benefits for doctors retiring from this cohort were also more robust than current or presumed future offerings and also without the threat of the program becoming insolvent.

The cost of attending medical school and the debt burden incurred from it is considered laughable and pales in comparison to the debt burden subsequent generations have to endure.

Of course, practicing in these times presented some unique challenges that subsequent generations did not have to face.

These doctors did not have the vast resources of medical knowledge at their fingertips which the internet now provides me. If there is something I vaguely remember from medical school, I can refresh my memory in an instant just by "Googling it." I remember my father's office had vast amounts of medical textbooks where they actually served a purpose rather than being more of a decoration as they are in my office. A radiologist practicing in this time period had far more archaic equipment to utilize in the quest to diagnose a medical condition.

The CT scan was invented in 1972 and the MRI in 1977 but it would be decades later before computer advancements made processing and interpreting these images much easier. Some truly barbaric practices that radiologists had to employ during this time have gone the way of the dodo bird, such as pneumoencephalogrpahy where radiologists would literally remove your spinal fluid and replace it with air, which, by historical accounts, was incredibly painful for the patient.

The "Golden Age of Medicine" abruptly came to an end and was perhaps replaced with the Bronze (or should it be Tin?) period as my generation of doctors assumed the mantle. The relative autonomy that allowed physicians to directly manage their patient's care without impedance made way to the reign of insurance preauthorizations and peer-to-peer reviews before a medical action would be given the green light (and this was still not a guaranteed outcome). I know physicians who have spent 30 to 40 minutes on a phone call arguing why a particular patient should qualify for an MRI (and still be denied).

The "art of medicine" soon gave way to "financial bottom line medicine."

Debt burden from student loans started to rear its ugly head as both college and medical tuition increases far outpaced inflation.

Although the term burnout was first coined in the 70s, its use became more prevalent when describing the plight of the Gen X physicians. Increasing physician suicide and burnout became topics of hot discussion among my generation of physicians as there was clearly a disconnect between what we thought medicine was going to be going in (based on our predecessors) and what it turned out to be in reality.

Advances in technology carried with it both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, advancements in radiology made increased efficiency possible with the incorporation of systems like PACS (Picture Archiving & Communication System).

Technological advancements in computing also allowed for more data to be processed in a faster time as well as improvements in advanced imaging modalities that provided clearer glimpses into the human body than was ever possible before.

However, technology also hit my generation (and the tail end of the preceding one) with electronic health records, which made our jobs feel more clerical, as well as the rise of patient satisfaction surveys/social media movement that made physicians feel like their practice success hinged on Yelp-like reviews.

The Young Guns of Medicine: They say ignorance is bliss and it may hold true regarding this generation. There have been comments that the younger generations may be immune to, or at least can better cope with, the changes that caused so much angst for the Generation X doctors.

It was suggested that perhaps there was some sort of "systemization" that occurs with younger doctors who likely never knew about the glory days of medicine practiced decades before and thus became indoctrinated to the current medical climate as is. This is the first generation of physicians where there was a shift to prioritizing lifestyle.

Whereas preceding generations of physicians wore their personal sacrifices to practice medicine as a badge of honor, this generation did not want to carry that torch. The rampant spread of physician personal finance/FIRE blogs that occurred during this time helped provide the necessary tools and financial acumen to achieve a lifestyle that is far more tolerable than in the past.

I did not have the advantages these physicians had and had to learn my financial knowledge through the school of hard knocks, making every mistake possible along the way.

As with every generation, there is definitely some cause for concern.

Student loan debt burden is continuing to exponentially rise, making the margin for financial error slimmer than ever before. Declining reimbursements will likely be a trend that continues to plague physicians who, in the past, compensated by increasing their workload, seeing patients like an assembly line (but there is an upper limit to this as there are only so many hours in the day).

Societal programs that these physicians contribute to such as Social Security and Medicare are currently so financially stressed that there is no guarantee that they will ever be able to make use of these benefits when their time comes.

As hospital administrators continue to seek cost-saving measures, there will be a rise of mid-level providers that may reduce or even replace the need for more expensive physicians. As technology continues to advance, there may be a time when certain specialties (radiology being at the forefront) may be fully replaced by artificial intelligence.

Xrayvsn blogs at xrayvsn.com. Please take the time to visit the other bloggers in this collaboration and see a perspective from their eyes:

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