Physician Health

Chris Clifford: The moment I knew medicine was my calling


Physicians are privileged to see patients at their most vulnerable, to reshape lives and continually revitalize the nation’s health system. In a challenging practice environment, physicians remain driven by the power of healing and the indelible connections they form with patients and families.

The AMA Wire® “When I Knew Medicine Was My Calling” series profiles a wide variety of doctors, offering a glimpse into the lives of the busy women and men navigating new courses in their careers and in American medicine. No matter their age, their specialty or their career stage, they were born to do this and they tell us why.

Share a moment with: Chris Clifford, rising fourth-year medical student at the University of Nevada Reno School of Medicine and government relations advocacy fellow at the AMA Medical Student Section.

I was born to: Serve those in need.

The moment I knew medicine was my calling: I was a sophomore in undergrad and I volunteered for the Flying Doctors of America. We traveled to the border of the southern United States and participated in a free health care clinic for thousands of mainly uninsured Hispanic patients. This mission made me realize how important it is to help the underserved and how a physician can have an enormous impact in the community.

An experience from medical school that kept me going: There were plenty of nights where I doubted my ability to continue in the demanding environment of medical school. In these times of doubt, I found it helpful to volunteer on the weekends at my university’s free student-run health care clinic to remind myself of what I was working toward.

I remember, clearly, one Saturday when an elderly woman walked into our clinic. She had been in line for hours, had no health insurance, and obviously had advanced rheumatoid arthritis. She had difficulty walking and had been living alone without treatment for years. When we were able to provide treatment to reduce her pain, she broke down in tears with overwhelming gratitude. I could always count on leaving the clinic with newfound energy and excitement.

My hope for the future of medicine: My hope is that the doctor-patient relationship is never sacrificed, that we solve interoperability and health IT problems so physicians can have more time to talk with patients, and that quality of medicine is always valued over volume. But, overall, my biggest hope for medicine is that money does not continue to be a barrier for patients receiving the best care possible. I’m not saying that health care should have more or less government involvement. The solution to this problem, in reality, is very complicated and cannot be summed up in such a simplistic argument. The only way we will solve this problem is by continuing the discussion among all parties involved.

The hardest moment in medicine and how I got past it: One of the most difficult realizations a physician confronts in their career is that certain populations are so disadvantaged that they never had a chance in terms of fighting their illness. Access to care and other health disparities are a major issue in this country. Preventive care is always better than treating a chronic condition, yet we as a society do not make prevention a priority. As a physician, I hope to be part of the solution to bridge the health disparity gap so that everybody in our country can receive quality care.

My favorite experience working with the medical team: One of my favorite memories of my third year of medical school was working with the trauma response team. Everybody has their own job and they perform it without hesitation. One of the most remarkable qualities of this group is that nobody has an ego or becomes offended when checking each other’s work. This is because everybody knows they are there for the patient and nothing should take away from that mission.

The most challenging aspects of caring for patients: The most challenging aspect, especially in the emergency room, is that some people intentionally try to manipulate you for their own gain. A good example of this is the patient that comes in with fake pain in order to obtain a prescription for pain medication. When something like this happens, I simply remind myself that they are likely struggling with an addiction and deserve compassion, not punishment.

The most rewarding aspect of caring for patients: Knowing that you are providing necessary care for others is very fulfilling. I particularly enjoy providing care for underserved communities and making a big impact in their lives. I look forward to taking my skills and volunteering for organizations such as Doctors Without Borders in the future.

The skills every physician should have but won’t be tested for on the board exam: I believe all physicians should learn about the health care system as a whole. There are three main reasons I believe this: 1) I have seen patients come into the ER or hospital as their last resort of care. Knowing the ins and outs of the system, you can direct the patients to the appropriate resources. 2) You can understand a patient’s struggle with the system, which gives you a deeper connection and ultimately allows you to provide better care. 3) As a physician, your opinion is respected and held to a different standard.

If you are not informed and are simply repeating statements from the news or politicians, then we lose our voice as a group. It is our job to inform ourselves so that we may speak as a united voice and have the greatest influence possible.

One question students should ask themselves before pursuing medicine: “Am I willing to invest in the continued education and training that medicine requires?” A unique feature of practicing medicine is that the education never stops. You learn from every patient, every interaction with a family member, and you are even required to attend classes or conferences to ensure you are up to date on current advances in your field. I believe the desire for continued learning is a defining feature of people who pursue health care as a career.

A quick insight I would give students who are considering medicine: Surround yourself with a solid support system. Making friends in your classes or leaning on your family will be crucial to your success. You will be asked to invest significant time and energy into studying during med school. You need a system of people that will not only understand your time commitments but will also offer support when you need it.

Mantra to describe my life in medicine: “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” —William Osler