How to encourage your child to be a doctor when grown up

As a family physician, guest lecturer at a local medical school, and creator of a pre-med curriculum for young learners, I’m often asked by parents how to support their child who wants to be a doctor.

The most important point to remember is that you don’t need to have any science background or be a professional of any sort to support your child. We all want to help our children follow their dreams! Most parents know as little about supporting a budding physician as I do about how to help my son, who wants to dance professionally. That’s OK! I do the same thing as you: I look for answers online. And I’m here to give you some ideas. If you know anything about dancing classical ballet professionally, you’re welcome to help me in return!

So here is the advice I give parents who want to do their best for their child who wants to be a doctor.

1. Ask your child why it sounds appealing and help them develop themselves in that direction. Is it because they want to help people? Be a leader? Be respected? Because they think the human body is really cool? Because they love figuring out science mysteries? These are all reasons I’ve heard kids give for why they want to be physicians… and they are also all reasons that many doctors enjoy being doctors.

Use that reason as a jumping-off point for your child’s personal growth. If they want to help people, what are ways they can start helping right now in your own community? If they love learning about the human body, give them plenty of opportunities to learn more. If they want to be a leader, what are some leadership roles they can take now? If you don’t have the time or access for any of these, look for organizations like scouts or online programs that can come alongside you.

2. Take your child’s interest seriously … but not too seriously. While many children say they want to be doctors, many will consider different professions before landing on something else. I didn’t, though. I decided I wanted to be a doctor when I was six and never lost sight of that goal. So try to find a middle ground of respecting their interest without locking them in.

“Being a doctor is a great career choice and there are so many others, too! I believe in you and that you will have a career you love!” Be careful not to tell them why it’s a great/terrible career for them. Instead, help them learn more and then evaluate for themselves if it’s a good fit.

Remember that people change careers multiple times in their lives, so even if your child ultimately makes it into medicine, there’s a good chance that won’t be their only career. In fact, there’s a good chance that many of the careers our children will have someday don’t exist yet. Think of how many of today’s jobs are due entirely to evolving technologies and would have been science fiction when we were kids!

3. Stress the importance of being well-rounded. When I was in middle school, I read an article in which a medical school dean stated that she could make any good person into a good doctor, but she couldn’t make just any good student into a good doctor. She went on to say that she wanted students who were well-rounded and interacted well with other people.

That stuck with me and I focused on developing into a good person, not just a good student. It paid off when I got into medical school on my first try as the youngest person in my class. My good grades and good test scores didn’t set me apart…it was my wide variety of interests outside of science and the stories I told during my interview, which demonstrated that I have an intense interest in the lives and well-being of other people.

4. Help your child learn more about medicine and being a doctor. Of course, shadowing a doctor is great, but many kids don’t grow up in professional families with connections that make that possible. So for the rest of us, there is a local library full of books. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a single doctor living within a 5-mile radius of the neighborhood where I grew up. But I read biographies, essays, humor, anything I could find that gave me a taste of my chosen career.

I now recommend that anyone interested in medicine read the biographies of many physicians to understand more about the career and what it takes to be a doctor, and what you give up. Documentaries can also be a great option. Nowadays, there are innumerable YouTube channels created by students, residents, and attendings that show so much more about real life than a professionally edited program. A favorite I often recommend for anyone from elementary age through college is ViolinMD. She shows a mix of the science, the camaraderie, and the typical day.

5. Give them a science framework. I’m a firm believer that just as young brains learn a second language more naturally, young brains are also primed to learn the language and patterns of science more easily.

Create a nature journal. Grow a garden. Collect bugs. Do dissections. Build simple machines. Play Valence Plus (a chemistry card game that teaches the basics of chemical reactions). Create a game of battleship using four laminated copies of the periodic table of the elements (each player holds a folder with two copies and uses a wet-erase marker to record the locations of their own ships on one and their guesses for the location of their opponent’s ships on the other). Watch “It’s OK to Be Smart” and other great science shows. Bill Nye largely created my own science framework.

6. Teach them to fail. Many competitive students never learn that it’s OK to be less than perfect… until they get to medical school and realize that no one can know everything. I often tell the medical students I teach that I almost failed anatomy in medical school (but went on to honor my clinical rotations). This was after a lifetime of being the top in my class, and it was terrifying to me to realize that I could fail. It shook my entire sense of identity. Who was I if I wasn’t the best?

Eventually, learning how to fail gave me the courage to take risks. That new attitude allowed me to be part of the early Direct Primary Care movement, establish the only free clinic in my city, and create the first pre-med curriculum for young learners.

7. Love them unconditionally. A good doctor doesn’t excel in school because they are afraid of their parents being disappointed. A good doctor loves to learn and feels so strongly about their goals that it’s worth the hard work. Your child needs to know that you are still proud of whether or not they get into medical school.

How to encourage your child to be a doctor when grown up

Doctors: They were essential then; they’re essential now. Imagine a world without them. Though many have thrown flak at the medical profession, we’d certainly be in a dark place without these frontliners. If our hospitals are already filled to the brim with COVID-19 patients with doctors around, how much more will we suffer without their services. No one would help you get back on your feet when you get sick. And what may have been a treatable disease could worsen and claim more lives.

This is why encouraging your son or daughter to become a doctor is spot on. For one, America could use more doctors, right with just about a million of them circulating. But you could be fighting an uphill battle drawing interest from your child to become a medical doctor, especially now that some of the best have fallen to the virus.

Thus, emphasizing that doctors are the heroes of the day is wise. When an infectious disease such as the COVID-19 virus is large, physicians and other health professionals save lives. Indeed, a medical doctor is one of the noblest professions today. Here are concrete steps to encourage your child to become one.

Start Them Young

You must influence your child’s rights. Forcing your child to become a doctor is counterintuitive. It only makes themhate the profession, not to mention hate you. It’s like forcing your child to play sports if their interests are in the arts.

A good way to do this is to cultivate theirdesire. And we can take a page from the Medical Schools Council in the U.K., a group representing all of the medical schools in Great Britain. The council recommended that children should start medical school at the age of 7.

What the council meant is children should be aware of the medical profession at a young age. This translates to having medical doctors visit primary schools. Aside from these campus tours, there should be workshops and demonstrations. There, children could take part in fun activities spearheaded by medical students.

And it’s a brilliant decision. For your part, you can have a friend doctor drop by. Or someone you know who’s a medical student. When your child sees positive things, chances are they’re going to emulate them.

Encourage a Medical Character

Indeed, many medical schools are not accepting classroom classes these days. The good news is the internet has filled up the void.

For instance, there a slew of American universities that allow you to study medicine online. You can even choose other degrees in healthcare. Additionally, you can also avail of online Ph.D. programs that allow you to earn a doctorate in courses other than medicine. With the crisis going on, distance learning is really the way to go.

And yet, even with all ease offered by the internet, becoming a medical doctor is a tall order. Doctors must have an above-ordinary set of characteristics to deliver even when under duress. We’re talking about resilience, determination, and compassion. Added to that, a medical doctor must be diligent. It’s definitely a lifelong learning process.

It’s normal for parents to encourage children to develop such wonderful traits. If you want your child to become a doctor, however, you should go the extra mile to help your child develop them.

You can start by keeping your child as organized as possible. Giving them a planner and helping themkeep the commitments he places therein is a good start.

Additionally, helping your child attain greater EQ or Emotional Intelligence can go a long way in thembecoming a medical doctor. Above and beyond, medical professionals are trained to provide care. Therefore, having a big heart is a requirement for one to deliver on the job.

On the other end of the spectrum, having pets can be a great way to get things going. When a child takes care of one, they grow mindful of the needs of others. Study shows children who have pets, be it a cat or a dog or an iguana, do better in life. And more than IQ or intelligence, EQ is the one factor that determines academic success early in life.

Make Them a Well-rounded Person

Lastly, don’t just put your focus on medicine. That would be shortsighted of you. While academic excellence is vital in getting into medicine, a well-rounded individual would fare better. Why? Simply because it allows themto develop in full as a person.

Medical school isn’t for the weak of hearts. It’s a long journey filled with stress and challenges. When you allow your child to cater to theirpassion, be it sports or arts or music, you give theman outlet to help thembetter cope when the time comes.

That way, your child becomes a better candidate to take the journey. And win with greater chances.

‘In the hyper-competitive world of medicine, even those with the marks and motivation battle to get in, so there is even less room for those with the marks but scant motivation.’ Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

‘In the hyper-competitive world of medicine, even those with the marks and motivation battle to get in, so there is even less room for those with the marks but scant motivation.’ Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Last modified on Wed 20 Sep 2017 19.23 BST

T here I was, almost at the end of the night, having spoken to a few hundred hand-picked, talented high school students about my life as a doctor. Their youth was no barrier to their determination to be the best – I met budding astronauts, focused scientists, concerned environmentalists, and as usual, a horde of kids who dreamed of becoming doctors.

The students asked penetrating questions about everything from the ethics of million-dollar drugs to whether children compromised one’s career. These were teenagers! With each question, my admiration grew and I briefly dreamed that one day, in my household, there might be such questions to replace, “Have you seen the remote?”

I was signing books when I noticed a girl, who hovered on the side, waiting till the crowd had cleared.

“I don’t know how to ask this without being rude,” she ventured, before my silence enabled her.

“My parents really want me to do medicine but I’m not interested. How do I say no?”

It was the curliest question of the night.

“I think I can get in but my heart is not in it.”

“It’s great that you recognise it,” I said. “Have you tried talking to your parents?”

“I’ve tried and tried, but they have invested their whole life in my brother and me.”

“What would happen if you said no?”

“They would be really disappointed in me. That would break my heart.”

“But if I did medicine, I wouldn’t be honest to myself. And I’d take the spot of someone who really wanted it.”

She faced a wicked dilemma: whether to obey the urging of her parents or rely on her own, admittedly young, instinct. A momentous decision hung in the air, the sort parents can help address, but of course, the parents were the problem. And though she relaxed at the opportunity to voice her dilemma, I knew that the knots in her stomach would return soon.

I wished that I could sweep away her problem; I wished I could convince her parents that a child of her poise and humility would do well in whatever she chose. I told her to see the school counsellor again and I reminded her to be true to herself but when she left, I felt hollow, musing whether she would one day be the troubled student or the depressed intern I encounter.

Although I don’t know her parents, I meet them regularly. I meet them at social events and medical talks. I meet them at seemingly benign movie nights and picnics when the conversation turns to medicine.

“He’s got the marks, he’s all set with the entrance test, all he needs is a coach for the interview,” a mother breathlessly explained. “Do you know anyone?”

“I just want her to be happy,” says another. “You’re happy, aren’t you?”

“I am but she isn’t me.”

Another time an acquaintance of an acquaintance knocks on my door, a tired son in tow. “We want last-minute tips for his interview.”

Students pondering a career in medicine, I have always welcomed. Parents who do it on behalf of their child, I am increasingly wary of. The students are largely altruistic; the parents aspire to status, money and job security. I don’t blame them but what they don’t realise is that in the hyper-competitive world of medicine, even those with the marks and motivation battle to get in, so there is even less room for those with the marks but scant motivation.

Some years ago I interviewed a young man who was obviously bored, even in our eight-minute high-intensity interaction. His opening salvo: “Can I just tell you that I want to be an accountant?”

“Wrong interview then,” I said lightly.

“I got the marks and my dad made me come. My dad is a doctor.”

“Did you tell him you aren’t interested?”

“No point, but I hope to fail the interview.”

I was left reeling but I was told that no selection process can filter out pushy parents; we wait for the students to find their voice.

Doctors are often asked if they would recommend the profession to their children. A survey of American doctors by the Physicians Foundation found that more than half say no, citing the triumph of paperwork and bureaucracy over time with patients.

When I talk to my Australian colleagues, I hear similar sentiments. Doctors sign up to help people but are faced with growing mountains of paperwork, mindless compulsory modules and maddening meetings to satisfy performance indicators that make a mockery of patient-centred care.

Many doctors are burnt out, bullied and demoralised. Work is stressful and demanding. A 2013 Beyond Blue survey put paid to the notion that these are merely the groans of a self-indulgent, richly rewarded profession. Australian doctors have a substantially higher rate of high psychological distress compared to the general population and other professionals. An astonishing quarter have considered suicide, double the comparable figure in other professionals.

These figures are not just statistics – they are my friends and my residents. My professional landscape is strewn with doctors in trouble with alcohol and prescription drugs, doctors with broken relationships, sick of work and exhausted at home. I attend funerals and wonder how no one ever knew and I learn that no one is immune.

It might seem like only yesterday that you stepped into the pediatrician’s office for your child’s very first visit. But the time will come when your child needs to move into adult health care.

This change can be overwhelming for you and your child. But if you’re both prepared and plan ahead, it can be a smooth step on the path to adulthood.

Finding a New Doctor

Kids become legal adults at age 18. Then, they can visit an adult primary care physician (PCP), such as an internal medicine doctor (internist), a general practitioner, or a family medicine doctor.

Pediatricians are trained to care for kids and teens. Some still might provide care for a little longer if a young adult is in college (usually until college graduation or age 21). But this varies from doctor to doctor.

Ask your pediatrician for a referral if you don’t have a family doctor that your child wants to see or if your child has a chronic condition that will need an adult specialist’s care.

It may be a challenge to find a PCP or adult specialist if your child has a rare condition, disability, or pediatric-onset condition (one that develops only in childhood). You’ll want someone who’s comfortable caring for these complex needs. So start searching for doctors early, during the teen years.

Ask if your child can see a new doctor for a trial period. Then, follow up with the pediatric specialist to see how things went and put both doctors in touch to plan for the transition of care. Allow plenty of time for this process. That way, if there’s an issue your child can continue seeing the pediatric specialist until you find an adult provider who is a better fit.

Choosing Health Care Coverage

If your child is a dependent under your health care coverage, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) allows your child to be covered until age 26. It doesn’t matter if your child is in college, living at home, employed, or even married. Your child still can be on your policy.

If your child is a dependent on your job-based health care plan, coverage will expire on the day your child turns 26. So begin looking for new coverage well before this date. If covered through an ACA Health Insurance Marketplace plan, your child can keep the insurance until December 31 of the year he or she turns 26.

What Options Are Available?

Many employers offer group health care coverage as part of their employee benefits package. It lets employees customize a plan that may include dental care, vision care, emergency care, and routine medical care. Long-term disability insurance offers medical benefits for those who are out of work for a long period of time. If offered, it’s at an added cost.

If insured through an employer, your child will pay:

  • a monthly fee (premium), based on the number of exemptions claimed
  • any co-pays and out-of-pocket fees that go to health care providers like doctors or pharmacists

What if your adult child is no longer covered under your insurance plan and health coverage is not offered by an employer or spouse’s plan? Then, they might be eligible for coverage under COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. This U.S. mandate requires all health insurance carriers to temporarily extend coverage in a group plan to former dependents for up to 36 months.

COBRA does not kick in automatically. Your child must apply for coverage and should do so quickly, as the eligibility period is limited. Premiums will be higher than what your child paid as a dependent on your plan.

Your child also can opt for individual health coverage through the Marketplace on HealthCare.gov. Most plans are based on your adult child’s income. Many are subsidized to make them more affordable.

Special Considerations

Insurance companies can’t turn down people with a pre-existing condition, or charge them more for coverage. If your child has special health care needs, your insurance plan may have an adult disabled child clause. This lets adult children with disabilities stay on a parent’s plan indefinitely. Check to see if your insurance company offers this.

Those who are disabled before age 22 also may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). These benefits are offered to disabled children whose parents paid into Social Security throughout their careers. Kids whose parents have died, are retired, or get disability benefits themselves may qualify for benefits. After getting SSDI for 24 months, they’re also eligible for the U.S. government’s Medicare insurance plan.

Adult children who are disabled also may receive coverage through the government’s Medicaid program if their incomes fail to cover the cost of medical services, or if they qualify for and/or receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Being a Responsible Patient

Adult health care is based on patient responsibility. With that comes control. So, your child will make all medical decisions and is entitled to privacy about all medical conditions. You won’t get that information unless your child chooses to share it with you.

It’s important for young adults to share their medical information with all their health care providers. This includes previous illnesses, operations, medicines, and immunizations. They should also mention any allergic reactions to medicines, and any family history of disease, like cancer or heart disease.

Encourage your son or daughter to keep copies of all medical records and an up-to-date list of medicines.

And while it’s important to see a doctor with a health concern, it’s also important to go for regular checkups and screenings. Recommended health screenings are based on your child’s personal and family medical history.

Before Your Child Is an Adult

Help your kids start “co-managing” their health care during the teen years. Little by little, encourage teens to take an active role. They can schedule appointments and refill prescriptions, for example. This builds self-confidence and also shows parents that their kids can take care of themselves.

The move to adult health care won’t happen overnight. But planning ahead and talking about what to expect will help kids manage their medical care when the time comes.