If you want to save lives, should you study medicine? Probably not.

About 1 in 200 people become doctors, many of them because they want to cure the sick and generally make the world a better place. Are they making the right decision?

To help answer that question, we’ve produced an exploratory career profile on medical careers.

The conclusion of our research is that most people skilled enough to make it in a field as challenging as medicine could have a bigger social impact through an alternative career.

The best research suggests that doctors do much less to improve the health of their patients than you might naturally expect. Health is more determined by lifestyle factors, and most of the treatments that work particularly well could be delivered with a smaller number of doctors than already work in the UK or USA.

However, medicine is high earning and highly fulfilling, and we expect there are more promising opportunities to help others through biomedical research, public health, health policy and (e.g. hospital) management.

Overall, we think going to medical school would be the best way to have a social impact only if someone felt they were a significantly better fit for medicine than the other options we recommend.

Dr Greg Lewis, a practicing physician in the UK, wrote most of the career profile.

Key findings

  • Having more physicians in the developed world has a surprisingly small impact on the health of recipients. A extra doctor might expect to increase their patients’ health enough to create 4 years of extra healthy life for each year of work. This could be easily accomplished in the developing world with just several hundreds dollars in donations to effective charities. The full report discusses how this surprising result can be the case.
  • Becoming a doctor is competitive. In the US the average GPA of a new medical student is 3.69. The average new medical student in the UK was in the top 5% of school leavers.
  • Doctors are among the most satisfied with their careers, but stress and burnout is a significant problem.
  • Doctors are among the highest paid of all professions, allowing them to fund significant donations to high-impact projects. However their earnings are quite flat, so it’s hard to become extremely wealthy in medicine.
  • Doctors are highly trusted by the public, but few seem to exert significant influence in society, suggesting it’s not a particularly promising route for advocacy.
  • While physicians have good exit opportunities into other careers, including finance, consulting or academia, they are not impressive relative to the large amount of time, effort and money required to become one. A lot of the content in medical school is not easily transferred to other fields.

Read the full profile for much more and an explanation of how we reached our conclusion.

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