August doctors

by Dr Ed Jesudason MA FRCS MD


Not going on a Summer Holiday

Each August, a new crop of doctors bud from UK medical schools.

It’s a nervy time. The popular #TipsForNewDocs gravitates towards advice on asking for help; learning, not ruminating, when mistaken; caring for oneself while caring for others.

It’s also a time for reflection. For many U.K.-trained doctors, it’s a chance to commemorate their “birthday” into the profession – and to muse on what’s changed.

This advice and nostalgia is mostly sound and often sweet. Here, I wanted briefly to wander in a different direction.

August, the eighth month, was named for Octavius, later Augustus, the first Roman emperor. But as an adjective, the Oxford English Dictionary defines august as “respected or impressive”; derived from the Latin, “augustus” meaning “consecrated, venerable”.

So the name of the month into which U.K. doctors are born holds both a promise and choice.

The promise rests in the Latin root of august – meaning consecrated. It conveys the solemnity of the contract between society and the doctor. Society grants the privileges of being a doctor, in advance and on trust. In return for this credit, the doctor should act ethically and for the public good.

The choice for each doctor is whether they uphold that contract. They keep their promise by working first for the public good. In doing so, doctors become august as a byproduct.

Doctors breach that contract when they abuse the privileges advanced to them; when they act for themselves and against the public interest; when they treat people paternalistically; when they judge rather than listen, and do so according to the narrows of their own life experience; when they err and don’t learn; when they fail to investigate errors – or cover them up; when, like Augustus, they ruthlessly carve out personal empires.

This choice affects our health. Consider how the latest healthcare scandal went on for so long; or why consultant-led hospital care continues to consume a disproportionate share of the health budget. Empires need emperors.

So as a new year of UK doctors begin their careers, let’s wish them all the best; let’s hope they have fun, as befits August; let’s point them to the advice and nostalgia of their seniors; but let’s hope too that they’ll keep their promise – becoming truly august – by resisting their inner Augustus.

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