I'm Going To Be A Physician!
©2002, Tim Lightfoot

Notes on piece: Everybody thinks they are an expert. Why not me?
Today I decided I was going to be a physician. If I were 16, you might consider this part of a normal career progression. However, I’m 39, a trained research scientist with a PhD in Exercise Physiology and have taught in a University setting of one form or another since 1982. However, today I’ve decided that I’m going to hang out a shingle tomorrow and be a physician. What’s that? You think I should go back to school to take courses on how to be a physician? Why? I can read the Merck Manual to figure out what symptoms go with which disease, I know how to use the Physician’s Desk Reference to determine what drugs to prescribe for these diseases, and I’ve always been able to tell my physician what was wrong with me. So I figure I have all I need to be a successful practicing physician. I’ll just have to sit back and figure out what HMO I want to be aligned with, and then I’ll be in business.

Just a little ludicrous, isn’t it? While most of society would probably think “he can’t be a physician, he has no training” after reading the above passage, society as a whole would never give a second thought to someone who claims to be able to do my job without any training. As a matter of fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that the biggest source of trouble in our society today is because most of us think we could do everyone else’s job better than they can or do.

I started thinking about this last week after one of our campus organizations allowed a young man to hold a “talk” about the “myths of nutritional supplements”. In the course of this young man’s presentation to approximately 30 students, he claimed, among other things, that the food pyramid was the worst thing ever visited upon our society and that only through high dosages of protein would a person lose weight. This young man was very charming, well-dressed, and earnest. However, it was obvious from the young man’s presentation that he had not had any education in nutrition, weight control, or exercise physiology and was most concerned that these students come to his nutritional supplement store and purchase his products. When asked about his training and the background he had to make the statements he had, he proudly noted that he only had a Bachelor’s degree in Communication, with a minor in Philosophy. He went on to note that he had taken two courses in health during his college career and since physicians were only required to take one course in health during their training, he was more qualified than a physician to recommend nutrition and weight control strategies. Further, he proudly claimed that he had learned all he needed to know by reading “selected materials”.

I was amazed and concerned by several aspects of this incident, not the least of which was that there about 30 people that attended his talk that had some completely incorrect notions about nutrition and weight control. As I discussed this “talk” with several of my students, all of whom have training in nutrition, weight control, and exercise physiology, they were mostly concerned that here was an individual that was passing himself off as an expert in an area in which he obviously had no formal and very little informal training. As my students and I discussed appropriate courses of action and responses to this gentleman’s presentation, I urged them to think of the big picture. However, it then struck me that I had not thought of the really big picture. However, the more I considered what this episode meant, I became more concerned that here was a young man that had obviously convinced himself that he had no need of any formal education to do a certain job; a job that could adversely impact the health and welfare of many people. This young man had gone through our educational system and somewhere along the way, he had missed the part about the importance of being appropriately prepared and educated for a particular job. I’m not sure he realized that as he gave out incorrect information and sold products that did little or no good for his customers, that he was committing fraud. In many health care fields, he could be sued for giving out incorrect prescriptions and encouraging people to take actions that could actually lead to harm. I suspect that sooner or later, his lack of knowledge about the field in which he is working will catch up with him in one form or another. It is sad that here was a young man, who while obviously earnest about what he was doing, was starting to walk his career path in a minefield without any of the detection devices an education would have given him. But even deeper than that, I was bothered by and continued to struggle with the question of why this young man thought that it was okay to be improperly prepared to work in a health field.

Later, I realized that it seems to be a quality of Americans to distrust, disrespect, and second guess everyone and everything. In sports it is a time-honored tradition to “monday morning quarterback” and we all regularly second guess many aspects of everyday life. When was the last time you thought you could do school reassignments better than the school board? Fairly recently, I’d bet. We do not trust people to do the jobs that they have trained for, and we wind-up second guessing them and in some cases, attempting to do the job ourselves. As you look around, you’ll see that this lack of trust in training and competence stretches across our society. In my own case, I have often seen examples of legislators, politicians, and parents who think that they know what is best for my classroom, even though they have never attempted to teach one student, much less hundreds of students through hundreds of hours of content. What makes these people think that because they have no training in education that they can do the job better? What makes us think we can do the job better than a policeman, even though most of us have never carried a gun nor had to intervene in multiple crises on a daily basis? What makes us think that we can do better than our elected officials even though many of us have no experience leading a large number of people and don’t even bother to vote the majority of the time.

But wait, you say. We’re not second-guessing as much as giving constructive criticism. Besides, it’s our right to be able to say whatever we want, right? While I think that criticism and free speech can play a valuable role at times, it seems that one of the most popular sports in our society is to criticize and second guess other people. When was the last time you saw a public figure actually praise their opponent for a good idea or effort? Not recently I’d bet. But why do we do this?

As I’ve reflected on these questions, it seems to me that people have a tendency to second guess and distrust when they don’t get what they want. I think that this “I want what I want” has led to the spread of incivility and distrust in our society that many pundits have commented upon. We all want what is best for ourselves, but how many of us are in favor of something that is in the best interest of society but may not benefit us? I continue to be amazed at retirees that do not want to support public schools through property taxes because “they already paid for their kids to go to school elsewhere”. Have we all become so short-sighted that we think of ourselves first and everyone else last? I’m afraid the answer to that question is “Yes”.

So what do we do about this situation? I think that the first thing we have to do is to give each other a little more credit for what we each know, our experiences in life that have allowed us to reach this point, and our perceptions that we carry. Basing our efforts on mutual trust, instead of mutual paranoia provides a much more stable platform upon which to work on our real mutual problems. And we have a lot of mutual problems to work on. Perhaps it is best to agree that we all want the best solution to our problems and not immediately jump to suspicion and ridicule if someone doesn’t have the same opinion as ours. We have to remember that our society is based on the concept of the “greater good for all”. We have to resist the temptation to turn this into the “greater good for myself”.

As for me, I think I’m going to pay the young man a visit in his shop and take him some “selected readings” so he can continue to expand his knowledge. And I think I’ll stop believing that I could run the school board so much better than our current administrators.

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