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Doctors need love, too


While all members of the health care team deserve appreciation and respect, Doctors’ Day was created especially to recognize the work of physicians.

Rebekah Bernard: ©Rebekah Bernard

Rebekah Bernard: ©Rebekah Bernard

A few years ago while shopping in a souvenir shop on Bourbon Street, I stumbled upon a figurine of an angelic woman in a long white coat with a stethoscope in the pocket.I turned it to read the writing on the front, which read: ‘Doctors make the world a better place.’ Tears sprang into my eyes, and I realized why: I had seen dozens of similar kind words dedicated to teachers and nurses (who certainly deserve it), but it was the first time that I had seen such a sentiment about a physician.

If you believe television medical dramas, physicians are supposed to be stoic, unemotional, scientific—sometimes even unfeeling. Often, we expect ourselves to be this way, too. But the truth is, we are just like any human being. We hurt and suffer, and we have the same need for love and appreciation as anyone. We also need recognition of the sacrifices that we made for the privilege of practicing medicine—the loss of our 20s and sometimes even our 30s, delayed years of income and fertility, and often hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.

Recognizing physicians on Doctors’ Day is important

In a world where shortcuts abound, physicians make a deliberate choice to take the long road to study medicine: a minimum of 11 years and over 15,000 hours of clinical experience before we are permitted to treat patients independently. Perhaps this is why doctors report feeling so hurt by sentiments that fail to recognize our years of dedication. For example, three years ago, during the throes of COVID-19, doctors were outraged when Johns Hopkins tweeted a Doctors’ Day post thanking not only physicians, but also, “…nurses, PA's, environmental services and other health care workers.” After an outcry from physicians asking for recognition on a day dedicated to their profession, the institution offered an apology and a revision.

But Johns Hopkins wasn’t alone. That same year, many other organizations chose to include non-physicians on Doctor’s Day, with some adding additional insult by labeling physicians as ‘providers’ in their celebratory messages. Emblem Health proclaimed, “Thank you, Providers! Celebrating providers on National Doctor’s Day,” and Van Buren County Hospital shared photos of staff nurse practitioners, writing, “Today is National Doctors Day! VBCH would like to thank all our Clinic providers for what they give to VBCH everyday!”

While all members of the health care team deserve appreciation and respect, Doctors’ Day was created especially to recognize the work of physicians. Established on March 30, 1933, by Eudora Almond, the wife of Dr. Charles B. Almond, the date was selected as the anniversary of the first use of ether for anesthesia by physician Crawford W. Long, MD. Celebrants placed red carnations on the graves of deceased physicians and sent appreciation cards to local doctors. On Oct. 30, 1990, President Bush designated March 30 as National Doctors’ Day to honor the contribution of physicians who serve our country.

There are multiple days and even weeks dedicated throughout the year to the roles of various health care workers (National Nurses Week – May 6-12, Nurse Practitioner Week – Nov 7-13, Allied Health Professionals Week – Nov 5-9, National Physician Assistant Week – Oct 6-12, just to name a few). Although there is just one day dedicated to recognizing physicians, many health care institutions have chosen to include non-physicians on Doctors’ Day, often justified as a way to be ‘inclusive’ of other members of the health care team.

Some believe that this lack of appreciation is demoralizing to physicians, who already face high rates of burnout and moral injury. Marsha Haley, MD, a radiation oncologist, felt so strongly about the issue that she wrote a letter to the editor of her local newspaper. “In talking to physician colleagues, I saw that people were hurting because they were either ignored or misappropriated on this special day,” she said. “Stressful work settings, work life challenges, lack of support, exhaustion, lack of autonomy and longer work hours are all contributing to the rise in physician suicide rate, which is twice that of the general population.” Haley said that physicians need support, and that reserving Doctors’ Day for physicians alone is the least that organizations can do. “Physicians deserve to receive recognition on Doctors Day.”

After three years of grassroots campaigns by Haley and other physicians to recognize the unique and critical role of physicians, it seems that some organizations are getting the message. This year, Johns Hopkins focused its Doctors' Day post on the work of physicians. Some companies like Mosaic Life Care really got it right, sharing a touching message that went straight to the heart of the matter: “Thank you for going through years of schooling. Thank you for promising to heal and do no harm. Thank you for accepting immense responsibility. Thank you for the many times you put your life on hold so we can get our lives back on track. Thank you for listening.”

Appreciation makes a difference

Psychologists tell us that feeling recognized and appreciated is a basic human need—a form of existential validation. I’ve struggled with this in my own life: I want to think that I’m the kind of person who does the work because it’s the right thing to do, not for recognition or accolades. But the truth is, when someone takes note of my efforts, I find myself glowing. And on the flip side, without external validation, I have moments of feeling that my work is meaningless.“I don’t want to be this way,” I said to my psychologist. “How can I learn to stop it?”His response: “You can’t.” Instead, he urged me to acknowledge and accept that the need to feel valued and appreciated is a normal human emotion.

Fortunately, we don’t need grand gestures to feel valued. A simple ‘thank you’ makes a big difference in our lives. In fact, at a lecture I recently attended about physician wellness, the speaker asked the audience to raise their hand if they had a special place where they kept thank you notes from patients. Every hand went up. The speaker urged doctors to open up that box of saved cards and notes whenever they feel down or have a bad day, to remember the difference we make in the lives of others.

Another step that we can all take is to recognize and appreciate our colleagues who went through the same grueling training we did. Marsha Haley told me that she wrote her ‘Doctors’ Day’ letter to the editor because she worried for her colleagues that she recognized were feeling ignored and disrepected on a day dedicated to their work. “I appreciate physicians—all the hours and years that they took to train,” she said. “When I go to an emergency room one day, I want to know that there will be a highly trained physician there to take care of me or my loved one.”

Let’s all take the time to show appreciation for each other. Whenever you notice a colleague taking special care of a patient, going above and beyond, or just simply doing their job well, take a moment to acknowledge their effort. Send a note, write a positive review, tag them on a social media post, or nominate them for an award.After all, appreciation improves wellness not only for the reciever, but also for the giver.

Rebekah Bernard, MD, is a Family physician in Fort Myers, Florida. Her most recent book is Imposter Doctors: Patients at Risk.

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