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Wilkommen to my blog - my name is Karin Purshouse, and I'm a doctor in the UK. If you're looking for ramblings on life as a junior doctor, my attempts to dual-moonlight as a scientist and balancing all that madness with a life, you've come to the right place. I'm currently a doctor/research trainee in oncology after spending a year doing research in the USA. All original content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Why is Generalism not a more Valued Specialty?

When I describe what I do, even to other doctors, they'd probably say it was quite niche.  It's going to become even more niche as time goes on, as research takes me down a particular cancer subtype, even down a particular genetic route.  It's quite possible that when I'm a Consultant, many moons from now, I might only specialise in one or two cancer subtypes, and in the research world, my area of expertise might be reduced down to a very specific area of molecular biology.

One might call this 'Extreme Funnelling' in the sense that when I did my medical finals 5 years ago, I was still being examined and assessed as a doctor who could work in obstetrics, paediatrics, psychiatry or surgery.  During my first two years as a doctor I worked, amongst other things, in surgery and ITU.  Since starting core medical training, I still rotate through 'General Medical specialties', and, particularly when I'm on call, cross cover for a bunch of medical specialties.  But, all being well, after my next year of clinical work, I'll be predominantly working with cancer and nothing else as my training continues.  This is true of most of my friends who have ended up in the research world - they started off as generalists, and now subspecialise in things as diverse as veterinary neurology to paediatric epidemiology.

In complete contrast to me, my partner-in-crime is all about generalism and what I would consider the action-packed coal face of medicine.  He works in intensive, emergency generalism - specialising, if you like, in being a generalist - much like GPs or geriatricians.  And yet, he quite reasonably debates with me, why is it that most people who do research or are quoted as being 'world leading' or whatever, go on to subspecialise in something extremely narrow?  And why do we value that so highly over the actually far greater skill, and perhaps more promising challenge, involved with receiving someone in a heap and dissecting apart what's going on, making a diagnosis (or diagnoses) and initiating treatment?

I have to admit that this is a very good question.  Why do we end up in super-specialised areas of medicine?  For the wider world, obviously it's much more appealing to have one person who can deal with all the cases of rhabdomyosarcoma, a disease diagnosed in 100 children across the UK each year, who therefore knows how to manage such a rare and aggressive condition, versus a generalist who might see one or two across the span of their career.  But for the individual doctor, surely it becomes quite routine when that's all you see.  It's like calling a cardiologist to ask them to see your patient because they've had a heart attack - when that's all you ever see, heart attacks become pretty routine and samey.

'When I am old I will wear purple...' - graduating
as Members of the RCP with my two best pals from 
medical school. 
People say they specialise because they like the focus of dissecting apart a a particular problem or area, and exploring it in infinite detail, but a generalist might argue that this is exactly what they are doing, just from a broader start-point - and yet we seem to value it less.  If I had a pound for every time someone has asked me if I want to specialise or become 'just' a GP... as if being a GP is easy! Amongst medics we would say that being an average GP, much like anything else in life, is probably a manageable goal, but being a 'good' GP seems incredibly hard.  Balancing good clinical practice with pragmatism is not easy.  Teasing apart that benign-sounding chest pain from a pulmonary embolism or that slight foot drop with a brain tumour - or the patient who is dying at home and should be palliated in their own surroundings, versus the patient with a terminal illness who needs to be admitted to hospital to treat just their reversible chest infection - are just some of the challenges that spring to mind.  And those are just the clinical challenges, let alone the administrative ones!

I think the other issue with generalism is the associated clinical lifestyle.  Generalists - such as GPs, Emergency Doctors and Acute Medics - are increasingly dumped upon by everyone else.  That means working more evenings, more weekends, more night shifts, more scape-goating by the media, more pressure, more rota gaps, more late finishes.  I hear it gets better, but it's hard to believe that after years of being a junior doctor rotating through general specialties on intense rotas.  As such, people make other choices.

So why am I choosing a life of specialism?  Perhaps it's because I want to know 'everything' and the only way to get close to that is by exploring something in a lot of detail.  I like the idea of knowing the limits of my knowledge about something and knowing how I can tweak away at those limits.  I also want to influence the treatments and management strategies we use and make them better.  The only way to do that is to specialise. But it has made me think that a healthy dollop of generalism is fundamental to my future practice - something I reflected on a little last week as I attended my Royal College of Physicians graduation (membership of which required a mountain of further postgraduate exams on the *entire*, and thus very general, scope of clinical medicine!).

When discussing this, my partner and I also couldn't escape the importance of early formative experiences in making these sorts of career choices.  In many ways, the technical work and fast pace of intensive care, surgery or emergency medicine should completely appeal to me, and yet here I am, training as a cancer specialist.  I'm sure that's in no small part due to the cumulative effect of both positive and negative experiences both in and out of the hospital - one supportive registrar here, a dismissive consultant there - these things can make all of the difference.  Perhaps something for us all to remember as  we try to encourage those junior to us to consider following in our footsteps.