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What Food Service and Health Care Have in Common

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Earlier this year, in preparation for the job hunt that always seemed to be bubbling under the surface, I started the task of dusting my CV off to shop around. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that I had accumulated enough experience to unseat some of my early work experience. This was shocking to me because of the sheer amount of time that has passed, but I found myself melancholy to strike that experience from my CV, as I considered it formative and important to the clinician I was now. What was this illustrious work history? My time working in the service industry as a server and bartender.

From the age of 18 on, I worked in restaurants, starting out as a hostess and then graduating on to other roles. It was grueling, exhausting, and showed me the underbelly of humanity. Waiting is not easy, specifically when you are hungry, tired, angry, bored. That said, I think that it prepared me just as much for my time in health care as some of my clinical courses.

Even without online reviews, there are a lot of overlapping aspects between health care and the service industry. In both industries, doing things correctly AND quickly are paramount, and although not in that order, somehow being quick is almost as important as being correct. I remember my first shift after being accepted into nursing school. I thought for sure that one day I would be working in a setting where people would appreciate what I did and that there would be acknowledgement of the bigger problems that exist above not getting sour cream on your burrito. It turned out that gratitude was difficult to find in both settings.

I didn’t have the perspective to realize that my experiences as a bartender and server — working with vomit, the occasional violence between patrons (and coworkers) and the never-ending line at the door would be invaluable in preparing me for life in health care. It was an incredible foil to some of my clinic rotations.

You can learn a lot about a person by how they interact with servers and bartenders. This is not to say that actions in the walls of a restaurant are enough to make a complete assessment of a person, but I noticed (especially as I began to see my customers in the workplace as a nursing student) that the people who were nicer to restaurant staff, seemed to be nicer to people in general. Even before I was taking my own patients and navigating on my own, I could see the parallels between being in health care and working in the service industry. Although not nearly as dire as waiting in the ER, waiting for food can be a test of will.

This is not to devalue my education by any means. I have had some of the greatest teachers and know that my practice today as a NP would be impossible without any of them. Yet what I learned in the dining area of that burrito shop allowed me to be able to function in my work as a nurse and as a nurse practitioner in a way that has made me stand out. Admittedly I was not gaining any clinical knowledge while at work, which is a huge benefit of working as a scribe or as a lab technician, but the knowledge I gained was priceless.

I think this is a benefit that my patients reap the rewards from. Prioritizing tasks and having the guts to acknowledge when I didn’t get it right is also something that I learned. Running your own space at the bar was akin to triaging and working Fast Track in the ED: There were a ton of ways to do it, and even more ways to not do it well. Being able to admit to my coworkers and to customers that I had messed up the order of the tickets, and then later in my career admitting to patients that I had messed up my flow was humbling, and I found that patrons and patients often reacted similarly.

I will begrudgingly remove my time at the burrito shop from my CV, but it will not be to the benefit of my future employers. I think that those years allowed me to understand a side of humanity that only can be paralleled in health care. To leave these years off my CV is to leave a part of myself behind, perhaps the part that made me the clinician that I am. 

What jobs did you have before medicine? Share how that career experience has helped you in the comments.

Blythe is a cardiology NP in the greater New Orleans area. Her special interests include improving social determinants of health in underserved communities and prevention of lateral violence in health care. She is a devoted mother, enjoying sewing and gardening in her spare time. She is a 2021–2022 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz

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