Is It OK To Take A Day Off When You're A Doctor?
As I sat down to write this week’s article on my day off from my “regular” job, I paused to take stock of my immediate environment.
A cursory glance would probably lend one to assume I was incredibly relaxed. I’m dorsally recumbent on my couch, with fresh coffee just a short reach away. Wrapped in a warm fleece blanket, with an adorable tabby cat curled at my toes, an unsuspected observer would conclude I was experiencing the true meaning of leisure. Closer inspection would reveal details suggesting otherwise.
Perched on my extended legs was my ergonomic, yet stylish, lap desk. Sitting atop the desk was my state of the art computer. The high-resolution screen was cluttered with a variety of open windows including my mail application where six (yes, six!) different personal e-mail accounts were linked and pinging with distinct regularity. In a separate window, I was connected to the e-mail account for our oncology service at work.
My professional Facebook and Twitter pages were open as well. My iPad mini was plugged into the USB port on the left. Extending from the USB port on the right was my iPhone. My Kindle sat a mere three feet away on my coffee table. My TV was tuned to the morning news.
It was barely eight o’clock in the morning on a cold, but otherwise brilliant pre-winter day, yet I was completely numb to anything not instantaneously attached to a virtual world located well beyond my immediate surroundings.
Reflecting on my awareness of the moment, I realized, for a day “off from work,” I was anything but “off.”
We live in a plugged in world. There’s no way around it, accessibility is a part of our daily lives. We are compelled to check e-mails and voicemails and text messages the moment they chime through our mobile phones, tablets, and computers.
My point is nothing novel — we all recognize our attachment to gadgets. As many times as we’ve surreptitiously checked our e-mails or Twitter feeds in a public forum, we've likely equally ignored phone calls and text messages in times of self-declared preservation.
As a veterinarian, I’ve noticed how accessibility is a particularly challenging and disturbing part of our occupation.
Technology affords us the benefit of immediate access to results for the majority of lab tests that used to require days of turn-around time. We have digital radiography, CT, and MRI scans, where professionals, located thousands of miles away from the patient, interpret results on a moments notice. We can now provide standards of care on par with those found in human medicine, and owners are becoming more demanding of these standards.
There is a dark side to this accessibility. It means I’m now compelled to search for test results expected to arrive on my days off. It means I routinely answer e-mails and phone calls after hours and on weekends. It means I open my life to the public on social media so I can continue to put forth accurate information about my profession.
The counterpart to this perspective is the impact it has on the expectations of owners when it comes to their pet’s healthcare. Results are commanded immediately. Phone calls must be answered right away. Doctors must be interrupted at home when they are not in the hospital because of perceived urgency.
I’ve experienced many instances of over the top behavior from owners in terms of expectations for my time and emotional capacity. I’m not speaking of the occasional e-mail or call or question on Facebook. I’m not concerned about those asking whether their pets’ reaction to treatment should be expected or not, or needing me to clarify treatment options for their pet after a complicated consult. I’m happy to provide information for people who have genuine and sensitive motivations. We all ultimately have the same goal in such cases.
However, a fitting example would be how during the two (yes two!) days off I had for my honeymoon last year, I found myself hiding in a hotel bathroom with my iPhone, covertly responding to e-mails and calls from work so my husband would not find out. I’ve dealt with severe complaints from owners who e-mail truly urgent questions on a weekend, who received an away-message indicating their e-mail would not be opened or responded to until we were back in the office days later. There are countless other examples of the downside to being accessible 24/7.
I feel guilty admitting I would relish a day without my electronic tethers. Even while typing the words, I’m immediately stricken with a sense of selfishness.
Why shouldn’t I remain on call for my patients at all times? Am I not obligated to make sure I am able to answer to owners or co-workers whenever they need me? How do I decide when it’s time to tune out when I clearly have an obligation to my work? Why don’t I want to be accessible all the time?
Our world may be plugged in and pushed to the realm of technological advancement, but is this really to anyone’s advantage? And when we have so many things to answer to, rather than taking the time to preserve ourselves and take a proverbial breath, are we really providing better patient care?
I would love to answer the question, but right now I just can’t seem to surface from my pile of electronics to give it significant consideration.
And perhaps, therein lays the answer.
Dr. Joanne Intile