Why I left clinical practice, but not healthcare

Being a doctor gave me the ultimate sense of purpose.

I’d always loved the idea of a career that brought together my two passions; science and humans. And when it came to choosing a specialty, I found my tribe in radiology.

Beyond the cliché of looking at black-and-white pictures in a dark room, clinical radiology is fundamental to all hospital-based medicine. I enjoyed the unique mix of skills it requires, where anatomy, physiology, pathology and the science of imaging become one. Changes in diagnostic and interventional imaging techniques have improved our ability to make early, accurate diagnoses using minimally-invasive methods. It’s an exciting, forward-thinking specialty, with opportunities to evolve as technologies continue to advance.

My mum had a long, fascinating career in the NHS as a respiratory physician, and I naturally developed an affinity for chest radiology. Despite the pressures of working as a consultant (what’s that?), and bringing up three daughters, she never failed to be passionate and proud to work for the NHS; and naturally inspired all three of us to follow in her doctor’s footsteps.

But then, I left the hospital behind me.

Life as a junior doctor in the NHS

I’d rotated round different specialties and hospitals every four to six months since graduating from university, struggling with the constant changes, the sense of not being part of a team, the brutal shift patterns, and the long commutes. These stressors tend to be trivialised, but for most of us, they are significant.

Despite their enthusiasm to share knowledge, consultants rarely have allocated time for teaching. I was fortunate to work alongside consultants who went the extra mile to be available, but time constraints make it near-impossible to schedule – and stick to – regular teaching.

The toughest decision I’ve made

Quitting wasn’t an overnight decision. For years I’d tried to ignore my anxieties, instead focussing on being a good doctor. Every time I’d consider it, I sensed overwhelming guilt at the thought of letting people down – family, friends, colleagues, supervisors, patients – and leaving behind another gap in the rota.

Perhaps my timing of joining the NHS was unlucky; it’s no secret that the system is under relentless pressure and morale is suffering. The job of a doctor in any specialty is demanding, and radiology is no exception. The shortage of radiologists has coincided with an increasing demand for diagnostic imaging. The result: radiology departments are under major strain. Consultant radiologists sometimes feel they have become ‘reporting machines’, leaving less time for teaching, research or even interventional procedures.

Source: Clinical radiology UK workforce census report 2018

Implications of ‘radiology shortage’ for people

In the busy hospital environment, while striving to do our best for our patients, we spare little time to look after ourselves. Most medics aspire to become a consultant; an expectation drilled into us from day one at university. Our medical degree, post-graduate exams, and years working as a junior doctor are mere hurdles along the way. We don’t tend to pause or step off the treadmill to consider if we’ve chosen the right goal.

And then, someone popped the question.

“Do you even like being a doctor?”

I think the consultant who asked already knew the answer; I was taken aback. While the reality of being a doctor was far from what I’d expected, I still considered it a privilege. And it felt wrong to admit that clinical practice wasn’t for me.

So, was it all for nothing?

For a while I regretted my qualifications; where had they got me? A decade of my life dedicated to a vocation which, in reality, left me disillusioned. It took some time to adjust to being off the treadmill and creating my own path. A completely new feeling to have no idea what my future looked like, but the freedom to make my own choices.

Just like I chose medicine for its sense of purpose, I knew that was ultimately how I wanted to feel again. I rediscovered my enthusiasm for science and my motivation to work in healthcare.

I don’t usually ascribe circumstances to fate. But it did seem like perfect timing when Aidence offered me an opportunity to use my experience and knowledge in an innovative environment. In my new life, I’m involved in improving the quality of radiologists’ work-life; something I am extremely passionate about.

After all, I’m glad I got that medical degree.

About Lizzie

Lizzie Barclay

Lizzie Barclay is Medical Director at AidenceLizzie is originally from Manchester, UK. After graduating from the University of Leeds Medical School (MBChB), and Barts and the London School of Medicine (BSc sports & exercise medicine), she spent four years working as a doctor in Manchester and Liverpool NHS Trusts, including two years in Clinical Radiology. Lizzie’s areas of interest are thoracic radiology and medicine, innovation, and improving patient outcomes and healthcare professionals’ wellbeing. She has presented her work on lung cancer imaging at national/international conferences, and recently contributed to Lung Cancer Europe’s “Early Diagnosis and Screening” event at the EU Parliament in Brussels.

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