Top docs offer advice, encouragement to new medical school grads

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

The AMA Tribute to the Medical School Class of 2020 had plenty of powerful words, but the ones that may resonate most for the nation’s newest physicians are from those who have traversed the noble path that a career in medicine entails. During the virtual celebration hosted by actor/comedian Brian Unger on Facebook and YouTube, several of the nation’s leading physicians offered their insights and encouragement to the newest members of the physician family. Here’s a look at what they had to say.

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In the midst of a global pandemic, these medical school graduates now enter practice to fight against a unprecedented adversary.

Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA, AMA President: “Change in medicine, and life, is constant, and every generation must face its own challenges. Your challenges include starting your careers in a health crisis, the magnitude of which we have not seen in generations, working to master ever-changing technology without losing that human touch, working to maintain connectedness and a sense of community in a world that can at times feel impersonal and isolating, making sense and deciphering the glut of information, and unfortunately, misinformation, that is always at our fingertips, and living in an age of anxiety and polarization.”

Anthony S. Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “This event has impacted everything we are doing including celebrating [graduation] a very special event in your lives … something I still cherish to this day is my own graduation from medical school.”

“However, looked at it another way, this challenge is exactly what you trained for. A successful response requires the training that you received. Now more than ever we need your talent, your energy, your resolve and your character. Some of you will be the physicians and health care providers caring for COVID-19 patients. Others of you will be the biomedical researchers illuminating how [COVID-19] causes disease. Or you will be developing medical solutions, diagnostics, treatment and vaccines. Directly or indirectly, it is inevitable that all of you, no matter your chosen field, will experience some impact of this pandemic on your newly emerging medical careers”

Success during a career in medicine—both inside the clinical environment and beyond—does not come easy. Some seasoned vets shared insight on how it can be achieved.



Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, surgeon, writer and public health innovator: “Always understand a person’s goals and priorities for care. Those goals and priorities will differ from person to person and will also differ for a given person over time. You have to ask them what are their hopes and fears for their health? What are they willing to go through and not willing to go through for the sake of more time? What matters to them most? Physicians ask such questions less than a quarter of the time. When we don’t’ ask, our care is much more likely to be out of line with people’s goals and priorities for our service. The result of that is suffering. When we ask, however, we understand what they need and can provide it. You gain a trust and bond that is more meaningful than people in other professions can ever know.”U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, broke his advice to graduates into four categories.

  • Think outside the box: “A novel corona virus has shown us that it’s time for new thinking. Never before have graduates entered their careers with so much opportunity to think outside the box and shape the future of health and health care.”
  • Advocate for your patients and your profession: “Throughout my career I’ve learned that my voice and my advocacy can save as many lives as my scalpel or stethoscope.”
  • Strive to be good people and not just good physicians: “My favorite saying is that people need to know you care before they care what you know.”
  • Practice self-care: “Just as a car can’t go as fast on a flat tire, you can’t give your best effort if you aren’t mentally, physically and spiritually running on all cylinders.”

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Esther Choo, MD, MPH, is an Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University. She is also the founder of Equity Quotient and #GetMePPE. Dr. Choo shed some light on the many roles new physicians will play over their careers. 

“Although today we are celebrating your new role as physicians, I would like to confer a few additional titles on you: public health advocate, health communicator and data translator,” Dr. Choo said. “These titles are non-transferrable and will not expire throughout your career. I confer them on you along with a few asks that come along with these roles.”

“I ask that you be curious, respectful and humble. I ask that as you correct misinformation you also lean into the discomfort about being yourself at times because demonstrating how one learns and grows is part of communicating good science. I ask that when you recognize that you must be the one to speak and when it is time to lift up the voices of others. Be uncompromising when it comes to advocating for the health of the population, particularly its most vulnerable, but be flexible when it comes to meeting people where they are. I ask that your public-facing words be driven by nothing less than the necessity of contributing meaningfully to knowledge, understanding and better health for all.

An AMA priority in the years ahead, two speakers touched on the need eliminate inequities in care.

David Satcher, MD, PhD, 16th Surgeon General of the United States and former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health: “In January 2000 I served as Surgeon General of the United States and the assistant secretary for health. In that capacity I led the development of Healthy People 2010. … We made a commitment to the elimination in disparities in health. It was a solid goal, sincere, and yet we have not reached that goal. And nowhere has that become more apparent than in the last few months as we have struggled with COVID-19, an outbreak of a virus that has found all kinds of ways to outsmart us.

“So today I challenge you that even in what may seem like the worst of times you hold true to your commitment and to our commitment to eliminate disparities in health and achieve health equity.”

Aletha Maybank, MD, MPH, AMA Chief Health Equity Officer: “This new day calls upon all of you to know and understand what creates health more broadly. Beyond the halls and walls of the hospital, outside of doctors’ offices, and understand how larger historical, political, structural and social contexts in which we all live impact our patients' health, your health and the health of your loved ones. I truly believe you will need to embrace joining medical care and public health in ways facilitate systems building that aligns the two fields instead of segregating them.” 

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Those who pursue a career in medicine do so, almost universally, with altruistic motivations. One veteran physician advised new graduates to keep that in their minds and hearts.

Donald M. Berwick, MD, MPP, President Emeritus and Senior Fellow, Institute for Healthcare Improvement; former Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services: “You are entering a calling that is by any measure noble. Your fellow human beings will soon honor you with their generous trust and hope. They will bring to you some of the most frightening worries and secret burdens of their lives … they will place their fates in your hands as they would no one else.

“COVID-19 with its puny 15 genes, it commands us to connect to our deepest values: healing, caring, justice, equity, respect for each other and love for our work. … This time has brought to you some short-term losses you will very soon forget. It also brings to you duties and opportunities you will never forget. The time will come when you will tell the story of how you, together, joined with your colleagues in difficult times. To do what is important: To help.”

In addition to wisdom from leaders in the field, the event, aimed at celebrating 30,000 new physicians entering the workforce—many of whom were unable to have physical graduation ceremonies—had a number of celebrity surprises. From Unger on down, the stars in virtual attendance included famous televisions physicians from shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scrubs.” It also featured appearances from Academy Award® winners Marcia Gay Harden, Regina King and Jeff Bridges.

“Isn’t it great to be smart?” said comedian Drew Carey. “To be able to do something like this. … It’s pretty amazing.”

“If you’re going into the heart industry, anti-aging industry or hair-loss industry, see you soon.”