I had a disturbing conversation with my younger sister about the public perception of doctors and Americans’ trust in them.
We were home in Delaware for Thanksgiving. While telling me about her life as a college student in New York City and her new social circles, she mentioned being irritated by their hostility towards physicians. In casual conversations, and even in classroom discussions, these young people agreed that physicians are greedy and care only about money. Apparently, physicians like me thrive on the financial ruin of our patients and are solely responsible for the rising health care costs in this country.
As much as I wanted to dismiss what she told me as the sentiments of opinionated liberal arts students, I couldn’t. That’s because I, too, have often encountered these attitudes. As early as high school, when I told people that my goal was to become a physician, some made snide comments about my obsession with wealth. During my medical training, patients and their families regularly accused me of placing profits above their health.
It wasn’t personal — at least not to them. People seemed to think that physicians wanted to rob patients. I say “rob” because, in January, the Washington Post published an op-ed comparing surgeons to muggers. Sen. Maggie Hassan even retweeted that essay.
Fast forward to today. The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed physicians and other health care providers into national heroes. No longer muggers, we are now brave souls fighting back against a deadly virus, even when we don’t have the equipment we need to protect ourselves from being infected by our patients and possibly dying. Instead of scorning physicians, op-eds are now calling for us to be immortalized in national monuments.
I have watched with awe videos of thousands of New Yorkers and Chicagoans and residents of other cities cheering health care workers as they arrive for their shifts. Hospitals are receiving donations of handmade masks and other personal protective equipment from grateful citizens. The sidewalk leading to the hospital where I work in Baltimore is covered with colorful chalked messages of support. Instead of snide comments, I now get encouragement from friends and even from strangers who see me in my scrubs walking down the street.
I never thought I would see this kind of support for physicians from my community and my country. To say that I am incredibly grateful for it is an understatement.
One day — soon would be good — the pandemic will be behind us. Will the public’s support for physicians and trust in them fade along with it? I don’t want it to, but fear it will. The idea of the greedy, uncaring physician has been ingrained in the public mind for decades, and I genuinely wonder if a few months of sacrifice on our part will truly overcome this painful stereotype.
I hope that Americans will remember the sacrifices physicians made during the time of coronavirus and continue to stand with us. I will do everything in my power to earn this renewed trust and I have faith that my colleagues will do the same.
Gregory Jasani is a resident physician in emergency medicine in Baltimore.